‘Doctor Strange’ Breaks Visual Boundaries, Treads Familiar Narrative Path (FILM REVIEW)


Sometime over the last eight years—Jesus, has it really only been eight years since Iron Man?—Marvel Studios has perfected the art of the popcorn flick, hitting upon a formula that allows them to churn out decent film after decent film without needing to break any narrative molds. At this point, you know about what to expect from a Marvel film, and they’re nothing if not consistent.

Doctor Strange, for all its amazing visuals and mind bending ideas about the nature of reality, doesn’t stray at all from the path laid out by the dozen or so films in the franchise that preceded it. It is as on brand as a movie can get while still retaining its own unique voice within its larger canon. In terms of narrative, there’s not much here you haven’t seen before, which works because everything we’ve seen before is so perfectly acceptable. Have you liked Marvel up to this point? That’s probably how you’ll feel about Doctor Strange.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange, a gifted surgeon with a knack for pulling off complicated procedures other doctors won’t come near. His life is derailed when a terrible car accident causes extensive nerve damage in his hands. Trying everything else with no progress, he chases a vague lead regarding a mystical healer living in Nepal. Known only as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), the mystical healer introduces Strange to the world of magic, opening his mind to the possibilities of the universe. After spending years devoting himself to learning the mystic arts, he finds the world is threatened by The Ancient One’s former protégé, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson), who wishes to use his powers of sorcery to usher in a powerful evil to our realm.

All rote Marvel material, save for the introduction of magic. Until now, Marvel has operated under strict, sci-fi guidelines—space, science experiments, aliens. Even the more fantasy oriented stories like Thor are grounded by scientific explanations (fantastic though they might be). They’ve toed the line before, but Doctor Strange jumps headlong into fantasy territory, showing us an entirely new side to the Marvel universe. And what it has to offer is nothing short of breathtaking.

While the cynic in me wants to shrug off the visuals of Doctor Strange has being little more than Inception on acid, I have to admit that Inception on acid sounds pretty goddamn awesome. It’s impossible not to see the visual influence that the former has on the latter, but that doesn’t mean they stick strictly with what you’ve already seen. The intensity is ramped up, careening Doctor Strange into a new realm of visual storytelling that’s truly unique.

If only the actual narrative was on par with its look. While there are no outward problems with the narrative as it’s presented, the film suffers greatly from origin fatigue. The lines between A and B have little variation, and generally speaking you can tell what’s going to happen, at least in terms of broad strokes, well before the story gets to the next point. Thankfully, this is largely offset by the charm of the cast.

Cumberbatch, choice of accent aside, is a delightful addition to the Marvel universe that adds some powerful weight to the already formidable roster of talent. The promise of Doctor Strange feels implicit—one day, we’ll get to see Cumberbatch standing next to Robert Downey Jr., Chris Pratt, and Chris Hemsworth. We might not get to right now, but the next Avengers movie is always on the horizon. Cumberbatch seems to know this, and does his best to make Doctor Strange interesting as a character, even with the familiarity of the story and script. His presence feels like destiny, and we get to watch as it unfolds.

Swinton, meanwhile, is easily the most badass character to make their introduction in the MCU since Black Widow first hit the scene. Though controversy still swirls her casting—and it’s not without merit—Swinton makes The Ancient One her own, bringing a new depth to a character that ran the risk of being just another trope. Same for Benedict Wong’s character, Wong, who’s moved from loyal manservant to magical librarian, leading the charge for Strange’s mystical education. As Kaecilius, Mikkelson constantly threatens to steal the entire show, though he does suffer from Marvel’s usual “villain as afterthought” characterization.

That’s so always the case with Marvel, and the critique is completely legitimate. It would be great if they could introduce an antagonist who didn’t feel so sorely underutilized, but at the same time what we do get of him is incredibly rewarding. That sort of serves as a metaphor for the entirety of Doctor Strange (which, in turn, is a metaphor for the whole of the MCU). It’s never enough of what we want, but what we get is too fun to ignore.

Still, for all its fun Doctor Strange never quite manages to break the boundary into the realm of great. I certainly liked everything about the movie, but I never quite loved it. It’s tough to see a film sit so abut brilliance only to flounder in the seas of average, but that’s ultimately where Doctor Strange sits. Perhaps now is when the cracks in Marvel’s formula will most begin to show. We know how origin stories work and what’s to be expected; stories like Guardians of the Galaxy work largely because the formula is subverted in minor and major ways. Doctor Strange’s strict adherence to the path doesn’t necessarily hurt the film, but it sure doesn’t help either.

That’s not a bad thing, but Marvel had the chance to really blow some minds by switching up the formula for this go around. The character of Doctor Strange certainly deserves it, but perhaps everything else about the movie was too weird to stray too far from the formula. Doctor Strange might be more awesome than it is good, but in the end, it’s pretty awesome, creating a film that will offer continued delight for MCU fans while still introducing new elements into the framework. That alone might be just what the doctor ordered.

Doctor Strange is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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