With its 14th movie, Marvel Studios has clearly defined its superhero movie formula. The quality of the films might not be perfect, but they are distinctly Marvel with equal amounts of visual flair and witty dialogue. In particular, Marvel knows how to spin a solid origin story; of the 14 core films, seven of them are introductions for the ever-growing team of Avengers. “Doctor Strange” is familiar in terms of its core Marvel elements, but its enlightened visual effects and exceptionally strong cast make it one of the strongest entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
Marvel’s Got a Brand New Bag
At this point, the MCU has brought viewers to World War II, the microscopic realm, outer space, and even Asgard. Throughout these disparate settings, Marvel Studios has never addressed magic; the other Avengers are either highly skilled engineers, gods, soldiers, thieves, experimental abominations, or born as monsters. “Doctor Strange” deftly changes that distinction while conforming to the MCU’s key tenants to give the Sorcerer Supreme a proper kickoff.
At the risk of being reductive, the effects in “Doctor Strange” are equal parts “Inception” and “The Matrix.” While this movie will never be considered as iconic as those films before it, the visual similarities are striking. For example, the multiple folding cityscapes seem like they are pulled directly out of Christopher Nolan’s dream drama, but “Doctor Strange” has its characters fighting on top of the psychedelic buildings a la “The Matrix.” This comparison is definitely not a criticism; in the past six years since “Inception,” visual effects have improved exponentially and “Doctor Strange” manages to make these green screen tricks more beautiful than ever. Add in a dash of fist fighting that is punctuated by magically conjured weapons and “Doctor Strange” is one of the most amazing visual treats in years.
If you have the chance to see this movie on the big screen, do it; watching at home will not pack the same magical punch. Thankfully, “Doctor Strange” also avoids becoming an instance of style over substance; it boasts the strongest cast of any MCU movie to date.
Mr. Doctor Stephen Strange
While some of its plot elements are copied and pasted from Marvel’s past outings, Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange almost makes up for all of the film’s familiar misgivings. From the current cast of Avengers, none of the other actors are as skilled as Benedict Cumberbatch; arguably the first Oscar-caliber actor to be brought into the super team’s ranks. As the pretentious, mega-wealthy surgeon, Cumberbatch expertly portrays the snark, bitterness, and subtle softness of the character. In my opinion, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark now has some competition as the MCU’s favorite prick. To digress further, the eventual banter between Iron Man and Doctor Strange has potential to be some of the funniest dialogue in the entire series.
Eventually, Doctor Strange is forced to give up his life as a surgeon due to a car accident which mangles his hands. During this period of weakness, Cumberbatch displays immense vulnerability and anger without overacting within the context of the MCU. It’s this personal downfall that brings Doctor Strange to train with The Ancient One, as played by Tilda Swinton, and become the Master of the Mystic Arts.
Ancient Words of Wisdom
Speaking of Oscar-caliber actors, Tilda Swinton is a previous winner of the prestigious award and her presence brings more firing power to the already strong cast. Despite allegations of whitewashing the previously Asian version of The Ancient One in the comics, I understand why Swinton was chosen for the role. If a film has the chance to bring Swinton in, it would be ludicrous to trade dramatic strength for authenticity. Without falling into a debate, Swinton is a fantastic choice for The Ancient One and brings weight to a potentially silly film about magic and defeating another world-conquering villain.
In particular, Swinton sells the viewer on the fact that magic could be real; rather than the product of a wand or witchcraft, magic is described as an energy force which resides in all humans and requires an open spirit to become manifest. In the inevitable training scenes between The Ancient One and Doctor Strange, Swinton subtly dances along the line of understanding mentor and a trial by fire sadist. Also, there is a moment in the film where Swinton truly unleashes her acting prowess and further cements “Doctor Strange” as one of the best Marvel films of all.
12 Eternities a Sorcerer
As if Cumberbatch and Swinton were not enough acting power for the film, the inclusion of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo is yet another (infinity) gem providing weight to “Doctor Strange.” The lead actor from “12 Years A Slave,” Ejiofor is perhaps the most consistently strong actor in the movie.
Likely due to limited screen time when compared to Cumberbatch and Swinton, Ejiofor’s dramatic range is never wasted. Whether he is expressing anger, confusion, or sympathy to the events around him, Ejiofor is a double-edged sword who portrays Mordo as equally conservative and potentially dangerous. In the eventual “Doctor Strange” sequel, it is all but confirmed that Mordo’s relationship with the Doctor will become even more central to the continuing epic.
Despite the strong cast, there are two characters that are hopelessly wasted in “Doctor Strange.” Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer and Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius embody the Marvel recipe that the other elements of “Doctor Strange” work so hard to avoid.
McAdams is a strong actress, as seen in 2015’s “Spotlight,” but she is relegated to being Doctor Strange’s powerless love interest. Thankfully, there is no damsel in distress situation in the third act, but her character seems ultimately pointless; as with most Marvel movies, the romance is sidelined until the sequel where the new villain will eventually target the love interest in order to harm the titular hero. In a way, McAdam’s wasted presence sets up the “Doctor Strange” sequel to be more conventional than its predecessor. However, I genuinely hope that Marvel Studios will allow the sequel to flex its weird muscles even more than the original film.
As for Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, there is not much to say. Another misguided individual who mistakes damning the world for saving it, Kaecilius is a typical Marvel villain that simply serves as a springboard for the hero to launch from. Mikkelsen is a tremendous actor, see the “Hannibal” TV series and “Casino Royale,” but his dialogue and mission are so stereotypically “evil” that there is not much to read between the lines. Marvel’s problem with developing strong villains is no secret and “Doctor Strange” does nothing to remedy this issue. However, I must note that the way that Doctor Strange “battles” the evil force is extremely original and visually spectacular; I just wish the character of Kaecilius was given the same creative care.
Despite the recycled Marvel elements in “Doctor Strange,” it is certainly worth your time and money; especially on the big screen. Come for the beautiful visual effects and stay for the, mostly, incredible acting. “Doctor Strange” does not break the infinite time loop of Marvel movies, but it conjures one of the most spectacular and powerful movies in the MCU.