Review: Doctor Strange (2016)

Ever since Marvel Studios released Iron Man in 2008, it has had a remarkable record of putting out exceptionally good movies with very few duds along the way so each new movie has a lot to live up to.

Phase 2 of the Marvel cinematic universe was in large part about introducing new characters and widening the roster for future movies. While phase 3 seems again to be about deepening the mythology rather than widening the scope, Marvel isn’t done with presenting us with new heroes yet. Doctor Strange, the second movie of phase 3, is all about transporting us into the mystical world of Stephen Strange.

And right up front I’m going to say Doctor Strange certainly delivers although it is not quite as good as MCU’s last two introductory movies: Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man.

For those uninitiated: Stephen Strange is a brilliant yet arrogant surgeon who often seems more concerned about his reputation than helping people. He lives a luxurious yet solitary life in his Manhattan apartment and enjoys driving fast cars. Things take a turn for the worse though when Strange gets in a car accident that pulverizes both his hands. This tragedy leaves him unable to hold a spoon, let alone a scalpel.

Desperate to regain his lost surgical skills he spends his entire savings in search of a fix for his now useless hands. Learning of a miraculous recovery of a case even more severe than his own, Strange travels to Kathmandu, Nepal in hopes of finding that magical cure for himself. Things turn out a little differently when he meets The Ancient One and starts his training in the mystical arts.

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Doctor Strange will turn your world upside down…

From the beginning Marvel’s movies have been about telling intriguing personal journeys and showing character development. It is an approach Marvel Studios has excelled at and it’s the main reason their movies have been as good as they are. Fortunately the same character-driven logic applies to Doctor Strange, telling the story of Stephen Strange’s personal struggle and transformation.

The movie takes its time establishing the character of Stephen Strange, then making us feel the desperation of his existential crisis and finally going into the humbling experience of his training in the mystical arts. Along the way we also get to know The Ancient One, Wong and Mordo, all of which are interesting and well developed characters in their own right.

While Doctor Strange definitely ties in to the wider Marvel Universe, introducing a new character like Doctor Strange and familiarizing the viewer with his corner of the Marvel universe already involves getting across a ton of information. Making the mistake of introducing new characters and stories while simultaneously laying a lot of pipework for future movies is exactly what led DC’s Batman V Superman to being such a convoluted train wreck. Doctor Strange on the other hand takes a completely different approach by carefully spreading out different story beats and elements while keeping the overall plot simple so the viewer never feels overwhelmed.

Finally as you expect from a movie that delves into the mystical forces, Doctor Strange has a strong visual element to it and it would’ve been easy for the makers to get lost in the special effects but the cinematic language the filmmakers have come up with here works quite well.

Doctor Strange obviously pulls inspiration from a few other movies but came up with a unique visual cocktail of its own. The most surprising influence I noticed here was Jumper. Like the 2008 movie, a lot of the action in Doctor Strange revolves around opening spatial portals that allow the user to jump to different locations across the Earth. Doctor Strange has its own method of doing this, and uses it in clever ways. Furthermore Doctor Strange freely borrows from Christopher Nolan’s Inception’s world bending antics but takes things to kaleidoscopic new heights. Both The Ancient One and the evil zealot Kaecilius seem particularly fond of turning the world not only upside down but in every other direction as well which certainly makes this movie a visually thrilling experience marvelously translating the trippy, psychedelic visuals from the comics to the silver screen.

Both visually and narratively Doctor Strange also takes its queues from the Matrix. Stephen plays it a bit like Neo, unsure at first but stumbling his way towards progress in the end. The Ancient One on the other hand can’t help but channeling Morpheus, the enigmatic leader who speaks in tongues while guiding our protagonist into a strange new world beyond the one we’re all used to.

Doctor Strange gives its own flavor to these points of reference so the movie never feels too much like you’ve seen it all before.

The movie also does a good job at setting up a few future storylines at the end that hint at bigger and more interesting things to come.

There were two post-credit scenes that make me particularly excited for what Marvel has in store for us when it comes to these characters. I also can’t wait to see how Doctor Strange is going to play off with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but I suspect that is where the character is really going to come into his own. We’ve already met (and fell in love with) one magic wielder in the MCU and he’s bound to cross paths with our freshly initiated sorcerer so that should give us something to look forward to.

While Marvel Studios has always excelled in bringing us the hero’s journey in a compelling way, it does have a spotty record when it comes to bringing villains to life on the screen and Doctor Strange suffers from the same affliction. The villain this time around is Kaecilius, played by Mads Mikkelsen, another disciple of The Ancient One who goes rogue, steals a powerful spell and is up to no good with it.

However with so much attention on Stephen Strange we unfortunately don’t get to spend enough time getting to know Kaecilius a little better and as a result his character comes across as very one note. We never really get a feel for who this guy really is and what is driving him and this lack of clear motivation is frustrating. A good villain has to be compelling in some way and Kaecilius never really gets there. He isn’t even the real big bad here either, the real one shows up like a final boss at the end of this movie causing a bit of a ‘who’s this guy now’ moment for anyone not fluent in the Doctor Strange mythology.

Perhaps it all comes down to a pacing problem. The movie has quite a hefty first act, making sure we get a good feel for who this Stephen Strange is and what sets him on this path of transformation but doing so at the expense of the second and third acts. We get some exposition from the Ancient One about all these other dimensions and the threats contained therein but otherwise the mythology aspect remains too underdeveloped. And so the plot with Kaecilius and the stolen spell feels a bit generic and uninspired as a result.

All in all these are just minor problems though and the movie certainly offers a thrilling and entertaining ride. Marvel Studios has a good handle on how to shape these movies and they deliver a solid if a bit underwhelming entry with Doctor Strange.

Still, Marvel Studios proved yet again they have the chops to tell a good, clean, compelling story but I can’t shake the feeling that the real magic for Stephen Strange is still to come.

Marvel is gearing up for the Guardians sequel and the long awaited Thor Ragnarok next year and judging by Doctor Strange, Marvel Studios is going to keep doing what it does best: give us intriguing, character driven comic book adaptations that keep pushing the envelope.

4/5

 

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