Marvel Studio’s latest is their most exciting and satisfying outing since 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, another reminder that the mega-franchise is at its best when taking risks and expanding its own horizons. In many respects Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange remains shackled by a distinct formula that’s grown stale over eight years and fourteen superhero stories, but it consistently offsets that dogging sense of familiarity with frequent trips into the new and the weird. It helps that the story remains wholly self-contained, making it an easy recommendation for those who aren’t caught up with (or who have never ventured into) the series before. As much as it is ‘yet another’ superhero movie, it is also a conceptually and visually imaginative fantasy film, admirably unafraid to throw outlandish ideas at audiences and revel in the anarchic results.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as brilliant but egotistical neurosurgeon Stephen Strange initially appears bland compared to the bombastic personas of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark or Chris Pratt’s Starlord, unlikeable alongside the more humble, altruistic spirit of Captain America or Thor. Yet as he embarks on a quest to heal himself after a terrible car accident and ends up in a society of powerful mystic warriors, that self-involved coldness opens to reveal subtle layers of internal crisis and a latent sense of responsibility which turns Strange into one of the more complex superheroes yet seen. His distinctive, dry sense of humor is used sparingly – a welcome change from the joke-a-minute attitude of some of the other heroes – and his interactions with fellow mystics Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong) are charming and at times heartfelt.
Despite promising characterizations, Strange remains hampered by many of the same complaints leveled against Marvel Studios time and time again. Both central antagonist Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson) and love interest Christine (Rachel McAdams) remain woefully underdeveloped. The studio’s crowd-pleasing, kitchen sink approach continues to create jarring tonal jumps, with gleefully self-deprecating humor one minute and self-serious melodrama the next. The first thirty-odd minutes consist of messy exposition and manipulative, predictable plot beats. This is a clear-cut superhero origin story through and through, and the familiar narrative of a man learning to harness powerful new abilities to take on a deadly foe will trigger deja vu in anyone familiar with the brand.
Where the film earns its ‘strange’ namesake is not in its overlying structure but in its execution, with a script that embraces weird and wacky concepts, and a director giddily committed to those more nonsensical elements. The mystical abilities Strange gains, such as leaving his body to fly around in astral form, entering a manipulatable mirror dimension invisible to humans, opening portals to quickly move across Earth or other planes of reality and manipulating time itself, are all explained with surprising fluidity and visual ingenuity. It certainly helps that they cast the always-committed Tilda Swinton as Strange’s enigmatic mentor The Ancient One. It’s up to her to explain most of the abstract superpowers that make up Strange’s repertoire, and she happens to be one of those actresses who can say pretty much anything and audiences will take it seriously.
Taking equal inspiration from visual innovators like The Matrix and Inception, the movie contains the best special effects and action sequences in the franchise’s history. Though the wirework is sometimes dubious, the filmmakers consistently summon fresh, eye-popping spectacle to assault the senses with. But the crazy effects are just icing on the cake. What makes the action great is its inventiveness, constantly building upon and challenging the limits of Strange’s powers. It’s said that the best action scenes are those that simultaneously build up the world and characters, and Doctor Strange understands this principle well. It all culminates in a two part final confrontation that bucks my largest gripe with these films: the weightless, incoherent third act showdown. By emphasizing creative problem solving over fists and lasers, the film stays true to what makes Stephen Strange – the genius surgeon-turned-mystic – different from the other superheroes.
Smart, funny and visually arresting, Doctor Strange overcomes its frustratingly formulaic narrative to deliver an engaging blockbuster that delights in exploring uncharted conceptual and visual territory. Its commitment to standing on its own comes as stark contrast after May’s Captain America: Civil War, the most crowded, convoluted Marvel flick to date. Both are enjoyable experiences, but this is the only one I believe can appeal just as much to non-fans of Marvel as to those already in the know. At the same time, it feels like a confident step forward for the Marvel franchise, as its abstract powers and outlandish plot points would never have made it to the screen if not for the groundwork the studio has already put in over the last eight years. There’s a trust here, sorely lacking in last year’s Ant-Man, that audiences can evolve with the brand.
Score: 3.5 out of 5