Doctor Strange feels like it’s kicking off a new phase in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After several years of fairly realistic/high tech superhero movies, it’s time for a little strange. Magic is strange, but not too strange – if you’ve seen Inception or Harry Potter. Benedict Cumberbatch is strange, but not too strange – if you’ve seen House, M. D. Doctor Strange is a strange superhero, but only a little. There’s nothing here to turn off Marvel fans and quite a bit to make them happy, as well as to subvert some of the tropes the MCU have been using.
Ok, enough intro, here’s the TL;DR review – A dizzying new superhero origin movie in the vein of Iron Man. Go see it. Marvel knows what it’s doing and it didn’t drop the ball here.
In-depth, way too many words review and critique.
First off, Doctor Strange did enough things right that most of my criticism is either nit picking or suggestions for improvement. It isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s good. I doesn’t reach the heights of The Avengers, Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier or The Guardians of the Galaxy but it’s just a few notches below them. There is some ‘fridge logic’ but nothing that took me out of the movie as I was watching it. It’s entertaining and feels shorter than its actual running time.
Doctor (and he makes a big deal about that title) Stephen Strange is a narcissistic neurosurgeon of great skill but of little empathy. A car accident cripples his hands and, when Western medicine can’t fix him, he goes to Nepal* to chase a miracle. Once there, he is eventually trained in the mystic arts by a woman known as The Ancient One, just in time to have to confront one of her previous students, Kaecilius. He is plotting to turn the earth over to the extra-dimensional deity named Dormammu, but not for the reasons you might assume. I won’t go into too much additional detail as there are some nice twists and flairs that a film fan will enjoy seeing for themselves.
The visuals of the movie are rather good, sometimes dizzying and sometimes awe-inspiring. It feels like a cross between Inception and an acid trip sometimes. I don’t recommend 3D for most movies, but this one might be worth the extra cash and discomfort. The camera is mostly locked down and if it’s often zoomed in to closely, it doesn’t really have ‘shaky cam’ issues. So though some scenes are disorienting, I don’t think it will cause too much discomfort for most viewers. It is worth seeing on the big screen, though.
I’m going to keep saying this but, Marvel knows what they’re doing. I know it’s fashionable for movie critics to write clickbait articles about ‘when is the superhero bubble going to burst’, but as long as Marvel is making movies like this, that bubble can keep building. I can only liken it to the glory days of the studio system of the 40’s and 50’s. A Marvel movie is like a David O. Selznick production. They are organized and they are telling good stories with impressive special effects and characters you care about.
The casting is very good. BC (because spelling his name is a pain) looks perfect in the role and acts appropriate for the character. Mads Mikkelsen is amazingly good as Kaecilius, giving pathos and menace to his character, punching well above most Marvel villains. Chiwetel Ejiofor is similarly good as Mordo, frankly I almost consider him to the be the real hero of the movie. Rachel McAdams manages to be cute, competent and useful which is impressive considering how little screen time she gets. Tilda Swindon is appropriate as The Ancient One, managing to be compassionate, creepy and ambiguous at the same time. For me, though, Benedict Wong stole the movie. Wong is awesome and I loved seeing him every time he was on the screen.
The magic mostly worked as well. They kept it simple, no overly-complicated spells like D&D or Mage: The Ascension gets into. In Doctor Strange, wizards are channeling energy from other dimensions to create shields, melee weapons and to open holes in this world or between our world and the many, many others. In the ‘mirror’ dimension, they are able to manipulate the reflection of the physical world and the Inception images shown in the trailer are largely taken from scenes in that ‘mirror’ universe. In our world, they’re more limited. By limiting the magic, it makes it easier for the audience to understand and makes Doctor Strange more of a martial arts movie. There are magical artifacts that can accomplish more impressive effects, but they seem to be unique and not something everyone can use. Frankly, I would have preferred to have more creative magic usage but this works for this movie.
Set, makeup, all the technical and special effects work is top notch. A lot of that gets missed or overshadowed by the visual effects, but everything looked great. Marvel hires pros and mostly lets them be excellent.
Special mention should go to the ending. Rather than have Doctor Strange get into a huge fight vs a monster or have to try to stop a blue laser blasting down from the sky, Doctor Strange outsmarts Dormammu with a little magic. It’s a nice subversion of superhero expectations.
This is an origin movie done very well. It introduces the character, gives him problems to overcome –inside himself as well as plot problems – lets him be heroic, lets him make mistakes and it allows him to win against very great odds but using things he’s learned along the way. The script isn’t perfect, but it works well enough.
What didn’t work:
Most of my problem are script logic and direction/photography choices.
First and most obviously, the action scenes are not well shot. The camera is too close to the actors and we can’t see what they’re doing. The action is hard to follow at times. I don’t know if the actors weren’t up to complicated fight choreography or if this was a result of the special effects required for most of the fights. The director, Scott Derrickson, has mostly done horror and suspense movies, not action. Deadpool, Captain American 2 and 3 and The Avengers 1 and 2 are still the gold standard (the action in Guardians of the Galaxy was fine, too) for superhero fight scenes. Which is odd as stuntman Jonathan Eusebio is credited as the fight coordinator in the Avengers and in Doctor Strange and the cinematographer Ben Davis has worked on Guardians of the Galaxy, so I have to put this on the direction.
The humor didn’t always work. The best humor comes from character, like the trailer scene about the wi-fi password, the confusion over Doctor Strange's name with Kaecilius and Wong’s scenes in general. Those work fine. But the slapstick humor with the cloak of levitation didn’t fit the tone of the movie. It felt like something out of a Harry Potter movie and it was one of the only things that jarred me in this movie.
Most of my other problems are script nit picks, which I’ll go into but they may not bother you as much as they did me.
- There isn’t really enough supernatural stuff here. There’s Kaecilius, his zealots and Dormammu and…that’s it. We hear about all these threats to our world that the sorcerers are protecting us form, but we don’t see any of them except Dormammu. Some lower-level bad guys that need magic to stop them would have been useful and could have been used to set up future antagonists.
- Script inconsistencies. Like the Ancient One telling Strange that the crippled man he was following had ‘convinced his body how to heal itself’. Which is fine and miraculous enough. But then later in the movie, it’s changed to say that he’s channeling some magic to control is paralyzed body remotely. Huh? That’s dumb. I assume it was done for the sake of the second post-credit scene**
- Having action scenes off-screen. We don’t see the Hong Kong destruction live. We do get a cool backwards rewind of some of the destruction, but show your bad guy being bad. No reason to hide it, unless you ran out of money. Similarly, the destruction of the New York fortress (I think it was New York, the location was unclear) also happens when the main characters are away from it. Missed opportunity.
- Timeline. It was not clear when this movie takes place and how much time has elapsed in it. If it had started out, pre-accident prior to most of the Marvel movies and Strange had literally had to spend years learning the mystic arts, it would have solved a lot of little nit pick problems. As it is, I THINK he learned all this magic is a few months. Not as bad as The Force Awakens, but they made a point of about years of study to become a neurosurgeon, but it only takes him months to learn how to poke holes in reality?
- Miraculous recoveries happen quite a bit, actually. Science really can’t explain everything and that could be played with. How Science is a technique for understanding the natural world. It can’t explain the supernatural, by definition. They tease a little about that with a line of dialog here and there but you could have written a good scene instead of a forgettable one around that theme. I get that they want to create a fairly atheistic world here, which lines up with Ditko’s worldview and probably Stan Lee’s as well. But there’s some lifting from theology of eternal life and ‘becoming one’. It would have been nice to have some actual spirituality in a movie that’s about spirituality working, supposedly. But no, it’s not spiritual, just channeling extra-dimensional energy. Like writing source code! Timid, especially considering the screenwriters and directors.
- The post credit sequences. They are very skippable. Very. I really, really suggest everyone skips them. There’s a tease for Thor: Ragnarock and an amusing self-refilling beer mug, but it doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie. And the second one….one of the things I liked best about this movie is that it didn’t make Mordo a bad guy. Mordo is actually a very good, very moral man and Stephen Strange’s biggest supporter. Then they decide to flip his villain switch in the post credit sequence. It’s clumsy and crappy. His heel turn should have been its own movie.
Finally but most glaringly for me, this is a movie set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s set just after Civil War (one of the Easter eggs is him being asked to work on what seems to be Rhode’s spinal injury from Civil War and him refusing). And he lives in New York. You know, a New York that had the Hulk break Harlem. That had aliens invade. That had a Norse god, Thor, fight to defend New York and hang out with the Avengers. But he finds the idea of chakras and acupuncture to be beyond the pale? Really? A giant flying armored space whale flew through Wall Street a few years ago. It simply doesn’t make sense for him to consider the supernatural to be so legendary.
So, that’s a lot of words and I have more but I think I’ll leave it there. It’s a good movie, with a little tinkering, it actually could have been great but so it goes.
*Can’t send him to Tibet, like in the comics, because you might piss off the Chinese and alienate all those Chinese ticket sales. Chinese yellow-washing is one of the least attractive trends of this decade but I will say that it’s fairly unobtrusive here, unlike the Magnificent Seven or the Red Dawn remake.
**The second stinger scene feels like it was tacked on and the dialog earlier about the paralyzed man’s ‘healing’ was also added to make the ending make sense. Which is a mistake, in my opinion.