I had the benefit of going and seeing an early screening of Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange this evening. It’s enjoyable, as Marvel movies tend to be, though it could easily be charged with taking the mystical end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and going through the same motions we’ve seen in the earlier films, but with trippier effects.
I’ll start with some of the positives. Benedict Cumberbatch is spot-on as Stephen Strange, in looks, in voice, and in manner. He starts off as he did in the comics: an arrogant, brilliant surgeon who has an automobile accident that leaves his hands all but useless to him. This particular arrogant jerk is far less likeable than, say, Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark, favoring a more caustic, at times visceral wit that can seriously cut. It’s off-putting at times, but I think is ultimately successful for a character who takes on the burden Strange finds put on him, especially as he comes to understand how little he really knows as he studies the mystic arts.
The supporting cast is also ably utilized. Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One brings surprising warmth and introspection to a role I was expecting to be otherworldly and almost uncaring. Chiwetel Ejiofor is superb as Karl Mordo, whose power and experience is only matched by a certain regimentedness of purpose that he can’t quite ever seem to shake. Rachel McAdams is Strange’s romantic interest, Christine Palmer, who has a few amusing scenes reacting to Strange’s antics (both mystical and not so mystical), but is otherwise not terribly memorable.
The biggest problem one might find with this film is that, as a Marvel Studios film, it does seem to hit some fairly predictable points. Marvel has clearly mastered the storytelling aspects of the hero’s journey, and has amassed a multimedia juggernaut by doing so successfully. That’s why we see a lot of the same elements: a hero who starts off not particularly heroic, who finds a way to attain the power to change the world, loses an elder figure, and completes the journey themselves, changed for the better. Along the way there’s some humor, some romance, and some fun. Doctor Strange seems to follow this formula to the letter, and while Marvel still does the job ably, it may be time for them to consider new angles to their films’ storytelling.
And then there’s the villain. Marvel’s tendency to do lousy movie villains (Loki notwithstanding) is intact and going strong. Mads Mikkelson’s character Kaecilius is someone of whom I’d never heard until this film, and it turns out I didn’t need to know much about him, in the worst ways possible. He’s out to remake the world anew, and willing to destroy reality to make it happen. Armed with a bland fanatacism and an even blander cadre of disciples, he’s less of a threat and more of an inconvenience, as Strange soon deduces.
None of this is to say the movie is a failure. Quite the opposite. It’s still building to a larger conclusion, and it does take this old formula and run it against the considerable backdrop of a mystical, reality-spanning adventure. And the special effects are simply mesmerizing. We have sorcerers and wizards bending reality all around themselves, creating portals, altering gravity, summoning matter and energies out of thin air, astral projections, out of body trips through the universe, multiverse, and so on. It’s a visual feast, and a bit overwhelming at times, but it’s definitely worth experiencing. Even if Kaecilius isn’t all that memorable, he can still do some fun things during a fight.
There’s the Marvel blend of action and humor, some of which you can see coming, but which ultimately works out. A few of the jokes in particular come out of nowhere, making them rare gems indeed. Stan Lee’s requisite cameo comes at a moment you can hardly miss. And the post credit scenes are definitely worth sticking around for, both for humorus and plot-driven reasons. Definitely worth a view, and I would say this is one of the few times I’d lobby for seeing it in 3D IMAX if possible.