Marvel Studios has reached a bit of a holding pattern with its much loved cinematic universe. After nearly a decade of iteration on the superhero genre with no real flops to speak of, Marvel has found a recipe that works: start with a likable lead character, add dazzling effects, mix in a liberal serving of action, sprinkle the snarky comedy all over the place, season with just a pinch of romance, dump a throwaway villain on top and Voila! Hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office! All they have to do is keep finding creative ways to serve us this familiar dish. Thankfully, Doctor Strange pulls this off superbly. Familiar in substance but not in style, Doctor Strange is a visual delight from beginning to end replete with comedy and a twist ending that sets it apart from the crowd.
Eggs Benedict Cucumber Patch stars as Dr. Steven Strange in a bit of casting to which I was initially resistant. What with Marvel’s severe deficit of quality villains, I was holding out hope that the man whose voice breathed life into Kahn and Smaug might one day compete with Tom Hiddleston for the title of Most Charismatic, British, Bad Guy on the Block. While this was sadly never meant to be, in Doctor Strange Benjamin Cumberland proves that his famous baritone delivers the tenacity of heroism with the same resonance as it does the malice of villainy. In the span of a single film Dr. Steven Strange has become one of my favorite characters in the MCU (though he’s still outranked by Groot).
Strange is a world renowned surgeon whose prodigious medical skill and natural genius intellect have brought him success and all the upper class niceties money can buy. Supremely arrogant and full of sarcastic quips, Strange is the kind of guy who lingers over his Rolex collection before driving his Lamborghini to work. At the hospital he spends his time excelling at his job, being rude to subordinates, and not appreciating the woman in his life (Rachel McAdams), who is, of course, the only one who truly understands him. All this is ripped from him in an instant when a car crash mangles his hands, leaving him with permanent, career ending nerve damage. Failed by medical science, he instead chases Eastern mysticism on a hopeful whim, unknowingly beginning his journey towards Sorcerer Supreme. In short, he’s Tony Stark with magic.
And thus, the biggest issue with this movie is exposed: it is blatantly derivative. Doctor Strange and Iron Man have, beat for beat, almost the exact same plot and hero. A billionaire, genius, asshole is brought low by chronic injury and embarks on a journey to remake himself. Along the way he learns humility, fixes things up with the girl, defeats the villain, and emerges as a superhero. You may complain that the writers and Benadryl Cumbersome are just playing a bit of an, ahem, imitation game with Robert Downey Jr., but c’mon. We can’t seriously expect Marvel to keep extending Mr. Jr.’s contract forever. Eventually there has to be a passing of the torch, and it would seem that the character of Steven Strange is being groomed for the role of arrogant wisecracker on the team. While I am more excited about the prospect of these two sharing some screentime before the baton pass, I’m perfectly okay with Dr. Strange becoming the new Tony Stark. Anything that allows us to see more of the world of Dr. Strange is a good thing.
The overwhelming strength of this movie lies in its visuals. The imagery in the film has been aptly compared to that of Inception, what with it’s fondness for bending the world around itself and playing with gravity. But while Inception only occasionally indulged in mind bending imagery, Dr. Strange lives for it. The artistry and creativity of the visual effects team behind this movie cannot be overstated. Action sequences consistently surprise and astound as the laws of physics rewrite themselves and the environments bend and dance to the whims of our characters, who battle each other through this maelstrom of psychedelic imagery. Dr. Strange is unlike anything else I’ve seen at the theater and is one of the few movies which was truly enriched by the third dimension.
If ever there was a movie to spring for the IMAX 3D showing, it is this one. Far too often movies feel that running themselves through a 3D converter program in post justifies the inflated price tag so long as they throw something at your face every so often. Not so, Dr. Strange. Much like Gravity, there are times when Dr. Strange feels like a thrill ride. Careening through inter-dimensional space and battling across islands of skyscrapers is an experience that is thoroughly improved by that pair of dorky glasses. Perhaps most impressive of all is that this craziness never becomes overwhelming. Even in 3D things never get so insane that we lose track of our characters or can’t follow the action. In fact, despite the madness of it’s visuals, the film remains remarkably grounded, even relatable, thanks in part to its fun characters, and, in typical Marvel style, plenty of well placed humor.
We live in a post Guardians of the Galaxy world now, yet despite knowing this going in, I was unprepared for how funny this movie would be. Being the first Marvel movie to eschew Sci-Fi and blatantly include magic, Dr. Strange helps ease its audience into its new world with much self aware comedy. Genre convention leads us and our hero to believe that practitioners of magic must live lives of monastic isolation, but that is not the case. Many laughs are had by juxtaposing ancient mysticism against modernity. Pop culture references and music litter the script, lightening the tone and reminding us that these ancient sorcerers are indeed part of the same world as The Avengers and the rest of us. “What is this? My mantra?” asks Steven Strange when an enigmatic slip of paper is thrust into his hand. “That’s the wifi password. We’re not savages,” admonishes Chiwetel Ejiofor. This interplay of worlds is used to great effect in the scenes shared between Bandicoot Curdlesnoot and co-star Rachel McAdams, where the laughs land just a little bit better than the love.
Like other leading ladies in superhero movies, McAdams is rendered pretty vestigial by the plot. The scenes she shares with Custardbath Splishnsplash enjoy good chemistry, but are too short and too sporadic for us to truly care about their relationship. The writers were clearly aware of this, so the romance element remains subdued throughout. If you were hoping for the classic ending where the hero gets the girl and they share a rooftop kiss, you will have to wait for the sequel, a la Iron Man 2. This time around we are given little more than the implication that more is to come. McAdams’ character feels like the product of genre convention rather than a necessary part of the story. While the plot does find a use for her character, her most memorable scenes are the ones which are played for laughs, most notably when Strange’s magic wreaks havoc at her job and she’s forced to roll with the situation. Hopefully Marvel finds something interesting to do with her character before her contract expires and we see another love interest go the way of Gwyenth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts. Thankfully, the writers did not entirely suffer the same lapse of creativity with the villain.
This being a Marvel movie, you are probably expecting the villain to be lame and forgettable – and you’d be right. In fact, he’s so forgettable that I’ve forgotten his name entirely. However, the creativity at play here lies not with the character himself, but with how the conflict with him is resolved.
Superhero movies have all but standardized the third act finale at this point. Heroes fight minions in the streets, the city gets wrecked, and there’s usually some big, computer animated threat in the sky unleashed by the villain. Both Avengers films, Thor 2, Winter Soldier, and basically everything DC has thus far done including Suicide Squad adhere to this model. But Dr. Strange doesn’t.
Once again showing some self awareness, Dr. Strange takes us right up to the edge of genre convention, right down to the computer animated threat in the sky, then abruptly changes gears and does its own thing. Its the kind of ending that wouldn’t work if Dr. Strange had been the first installment in the MCU, but when viewed in the context of our superhero dense cinemas, it does wonders for setting the film apart from the crowd. Suffice it to say that in terms of the plot, the ending finale is the most creative part of the movie and I sincerely hope that the sequels can likewise continue to surprise us.
Dr. Strange can be fairly criticized for being a derivative affair, but by merit of its visuals it deserves a free pass. The imagery alone is worth the price of an admission ticket, even an IMAX 3D one, and the familiar origin story should be little deterrent. After all, we don’t experiment with foreign cuisine every time we cook dinner. Most of the time we crave the familiar. Maybe we change a side dish or add a spice. That’s what we have here. Dr. Strange is what you get when you stuff Inception into a pepper grinder and sprinkle it all over the screenplay of Iron Man – a familiar dinner spruced up with an exotic new spice.