Up until now, Marvel films have been doing their best to be at least semi-realistic. All the heroes became so through scientific methods or through their own creations – Thor is the most obviously magical as a demigod, whereas Wanda Maximoff’s “magic” was given to her through a combination of science and an infinity stone. With Doctor Strange, Marvel is finally embracing the mystical, magical realm you would think comes with the territory of working on a comic-book film. But after you get through the endlessly trippy moments of other dimensions, fire-like spells and amusement at the sentient cape, you’ll realize that Doctor Strange is a Marvel film like almost every other. For every witty one-liner and excellent action sequence, there are character developments that just never happen and wild camera movements that conceal more than they show. Will you enjoy Doctor Strange? Probably. But it’s not because it is the new twist on Marvel we’ve all secretly wanted – you’ll love it because it’s the Marvel you know, just with a little more acid.
Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is one of the most accomplished neurosurgeons in the world, and he takes great pride in himself and his abilities. After a car accident (if you’re trying to teach your teen not to text and drive, make them watch that sequence over and over, I promise they’ll learn the lesson), Strange’s hands are permanently damaged and he develops a mania about fixing them, leaving him bankrupt and friendless. In a last-ditch attempt, he takes the advice of a former paralytic and travels to the mysterious Kamar-Taj, where he learns to unlock the multiverse and harness mystical energies from The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and his mentor Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). When former Kamar-Taj master Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) attempts to use the powers of darkness to fix the universe, Strange must use his newfound powers to help guard the multiverse.
The first time you watch Doctor Strange will easily be your most enjoyable, because it will all be new and exciting and kind of like dream. You know this from the beginning, where even the Marvel logo has been updated to highlight not only all the characters that have come before, but to show the scale that this film will take in the cinematic universe overall. The visual effects of the film are far beyond the CGI that Marvel has usually stuck to, sending Strange through worlds and planes that are far beyond anything you’d probably imagine for yourself, as well as allowing him to use magic in a way that will be interesting for everyone because it is so different than Harry Potter magic or Lord of the Rings magic. And as usual, Marvel does not miscast – Benedict Cumberbatch has been trained by years of Sherlock to portray the arrogant, inquisitive and ultimately good Stephen Strange. It is a little weird to hear him trying to speak with an American accent though – every once in awhile the British slips through and it comes across as almost a mumble and sounds very odd, if only because you expect the British, but he’s charming enough to make up for it, and his character plays off well with all the others. Tilda Swinton, despite early objections towards the changing of the character of The Ancient One, is perfectly majestic and mysterious, leading Strange into the world that reflects his name. It’s also very easy to appreciate the romantic hints of Strange and his former colleague Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), since Marvel’s romantic pairings have usually been less than satisfying.
For everything that Marvel gets right with Doctor Strange, there are plenty of their old tropes that are still present, ones that hopefully Marvel will fix soon. Namely, character development. For everything about Stephen Strange that is created for us, there are characters who we still really know nothing about. Mordo, despite having an alluded dark past, is brushed over with it all a simple “he was forged by the fires of his youth” and then has done with it. And the villain Kaecilius is given even less, if that’s possible. We’re told that he lost everyone he loved when he came to Kamar-Taj, but not who that entails or how or even why he decided to come to the mystic temple after that, or why he stayed, since not everyone does. This has always been a symptom of Marvel’s weakest link – their use of formulaic storytelling, which Doctor Strange was supposed to be a reprise from. So much time is spent on their main characters that others fall by the wayside, even the ones that could be very interesting, and if you break the stories down, you can tell what will happen next and where, as well as occasionally guess the “twists” thrown in for fun. Though Kaecilius is played by a good actor and has an interesting personality, the coolest thing the movie gives him is killer eye make-up (and it’s all make-up it’s seriously spectacular).
Doctor Strange has also taken an interesting liberty with their camera in this movie. Marvel’s fight scenes are usually filmed with a shaky camera and lots of cuts – maybe to make them more action packed, maybe because it’s just easier to edit fights that way – but now the camera is shaky during many moments of the story, intense moments, moments where there is usually stability in your screen, and it’s more than a little distracting. With all the spectacular things happening right before your eyes, sometimes it’s nice to just take a break and relax for the few minutes we are given as regular a moment as we can expect in this movie about magic and multiple dimensions of the world. They also seem to have overcorrected after the issue with location titles in Captain America: Civil War: instead of ginormous titles that take up the whole screen, we hardly receive any locations at all, even though there is a certain amount of switching between the locations in Nepal, London, New York and Hong Kong. There are some moments you may not know exactly where you are in the world of the film, and that can be just as disconcerting as it can be cool and well played in the world of Stephen Strange.
We have come to bargain – what’s it going to take to get our own sling ring?