Doctor Strange is the most visually interesting and rewarding Marvel Studios movie to date. It is brimming with psychedelic and challenging frames and accented with the usual brand of callback humour but it’s need to fit the Marvel formula and a lacklustre conflict stop it from being one of the best in the genre.
After losing the use of his hands in a horrific car crash, Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) travels to Nepal for an ancient solution to his injuries. There he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and a host of magical sorcerers who defend the Earth from mystical threats from the multiverse, aided by a fallen student of the Ancient One, Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen)
If you’re coming into Doctor Strange for a fresh and new origin story on this cult classic hero then look elsewhere. Strange’s fall from arrogance and fame and subsequent ascension from self-centred ego to saviour of humanity is a story we’ve seen a hundred times. One can boil the narrative down to own that basically parallels Iron Man or Thor or even Ant-Man but that would also ignore the strengths of the film.
Even as the narrative is well worn and generic, the generic aspects are done well. The humour is both oddball and by the book and most of it works incredibly well. It is also surprising to see a significant number of slapstick jokes in a film that takes itself very seriously in the magical genre.
Perhaps the best writing in the film doesn’t even come for Strange himself. Instead Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo experiences the most compelling arc in the story. He appears as this gruff and seasoned veteran who has seen it all but to see that tested and broken throughout provided some texture apposite the fine and manufactured story of Strange.
But Doctor Strange suffers from the same problem as most Marvel properties: a weak villain. At times Mikkelsen’s Kaecillius appears incredibly scary and threatening but the story often uses him for a joke or a humorous moment that sucks the villainy out of the character. He’s motivations are explained away in a plot dump and the climax of the villain does the character a disservice to set up future films and future showdowns – an overarching problem with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Doctor Strange boasts the best cast in any Marvel movie ever. Ignoring the whitewashing of the Ancient One for the sake of a review, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams, Benjamin Bratt and Michael Stuhlbarg are all solid in the film. Cumberbatch is fittingly smooth when he needs to pull his heroic muscles and compelling in his lowest moments. But it is Swinton who steals the show. Again, however, you feel about the casting – I for one am still saddened at the appropriation of culture – Swinton brings weight to the film. She has an almost ethereal presence in every single scene and elevates everyone around her.
Scott Derrickson cut his jib on low budget horror movies and he certainly brings some of that awe and wonder into Doctor Strange. But it is his ability to momentarily make Doctor Strange feel like it exists out of a manufactured universe that really stands out. There are moments in Doctor Strange that genuinely bend the mind and change your viewing experience. There are moments that astound and flip superhero action on its head. These are the moments that make Doctor Strange and these are the moments that will be remembered.
Doctor Strange is typically well acted and well realised as it comes from a studio that appears to do no wrong. It is funny, stunning and fascinating when it wants to be. It is a genuinely rewarding viewing experience. Unfortunately the experience runs on a track that we have seen and experienced numerous times. It is still a fantastic film and one of the top Marvel films but one cannot ignore a weak villain, a generic story and an anticlimactic final act.