Film Review – Doctor Strange
Have audiences reached superhero fatigue? When the screening of Doctor Strange (2016) ended, the audience I was with had a peculiar reaction. Instead of buzzing with excitement over what they’ve just seen, the crowd gathered their things and quietly shuffled out the door. It was as though they were just going through the motions. Superhero blockbusters come about so often that the “event” film has become rare. In its place is the hero-of-the-week, where we see similar characters take similar journeys, battling against the same bland villains with the entire world once again hanging in the balance.
Marvel Studios has gotten so adept at performing this dance that they could do it in their sleep. Maybe that’s partly the reason for my audience’s toned down reaction. That’s not to say that Scott Derrickson (director) and the cowriters (Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill) do anything wrong here. This is a slickly made production as is the standard for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And after tagging along with Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the rest of the usual cast for awhile now, this time we’re getting a brand new entry – one that may not be as familiar to the general public. That’s all well and good, but what Doctor Strange suffers from is a recipe that’s been done so often that it feels mechanical.
This isn’t a new criticism. Superhero movies – especially origin stories – follow a basic blueprint. Given that this is part of a larger whole in which it has to meet certain demands, there are parameters it must adhere to. That kind of takes the surprise out of things. Filmmakers try to cover this up by bombarding us with special effects. Here is no exception. Entering the realm of the “mystic arts,” characters are able to bend space and time, warping between various dimensions to change landscapes and manipulate energy out of thin air. We see an entire city fold onto itself, ala Inception (2010). Characters can transport between different places through portals made of fire, and weaponry can be conjured into existence with a mere wave of the hand. The trippy use of space and location make for a fun viewing experience. It’s like going on a rollercoaster ride with kaleidoscope goggles attached to your face.
It’s when we dig deeper into character and story do things start to flatten out. Unlike other Marvel characters in which their motivation is clearly depicted, Doctor Stephen Strange is not that interesting a character. Benedict Cumberbatch tries to fill him with as much charisma and charm as he can, but most of his humor settles on cheap pop culture references. Doctor Strange starts out as a talented (but egocentric) neurosurgeon whose hands become permanently damaged after a car accident. Desperate and with no options left, Doctor Strange takes the odd advice of traveling to a place called Kamar-Taj in Nepal where a mysterious person known as Yoda The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) possesses the power needed to heal him. However, Doctor Strange learns there is more to The Force this power than at first glance. He discovers that a previous student named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) has turned to the Dark Side Dark Arts, and is on an evil quest that Doctor Strange and his comrades must stop.
For a guy who sports a thin goatee, thickly combed hair, a gold medallion hanging on his necklace, and a bright red cape that has a mind of its own, Doctor Strange should have been way goofier than he ends up being. Sure, there are a few chuckles that happen here and there. A funny moment occurs when Doctor Strange fights a bad guy using his spiritual being while his physical body is incapacitated. Seeing fisticuffs between two ghosts is about as silly as it gets. It’s when the narrative shifts into neutral and coasts along that things start to drag, filling the requirements of every superhero origin story. Yet again, we have a villain that leaves little resonance. Mads Mikkelsen is a fine actor, and Kaecilius has the potential to be a character that sticks around. I liked his design, especially the black rings that circle his eyes. But he’s more of a plot requirement instead of a living, breathing person. His only function is to help Doctor Strange realize his potential. Chiwetel Ejiofor shows up as Mordo, one of The Ancient One’s most advanced pupils. Mordo is basically an expositional means for Doctor Strange, helping to explain the rules and regulations of the Mystic Arts. That’s more than what Rachel McAdams gets to do playing Christine Palmer, a surgical nurse and Doctor Strange’s central love interest. McAdams is barely in the movie, showing up only for her medical expertise or a longing romantic glance; otherwise she’s an afterthought.
If it sounds like I’m a little down on Doctor Strange, it’s only because it – despite the visual creativity – is held back by the necessities of the genre. This isn’t any weirder than what Ant-Man (2015) was, nor is it anywhere near as fun as Guardians of The Galaxy (2014). It’s still a fine movie, and I’m sure audiences will get what they anticipated. But after getting a boatload of superhero stuff for years now, a “fine movie” doesn’t really warrant much of a reaction anymore.