For a film whose plot hinges on the concept of separate worlds or realities, Doctor Strange takes that concept literally as it exists simultaneously as both very good and mediocre.
The latest in the Marvel Studios cabal of seemingly never ending films, nothing about Doctor Strange qualifies as bad, so while this review is going to focus on what missed the mark, that is in no way saying that this isn't a film you shouldn't see. Quite the contrary. In fact, while there is much nitpicking to be done, we absolutely must start out with what works here, because what does work is not only the backbone of the film itself, but the very thing that will keep Marvel Studios afloat as it goes into its third phase of films.
It's largely known that producer extraordinaire Kevin Feige wanted the maiden voyage of the Sorcerer Supreme to be an experience unlike any other to date. Part of what makes Marvel films so good, especially with later iterations is the fact that for the most part, even if the plots feel cookie cutter in nature, you're guaranteed to experience something new.
What Feige and director Scott Derrickson manage to pull off with the visual feel of Doctor Strange is nothing short of breathtaking, and while it may sound steeped in hyperbole, the film exists as the best example to date of how IMAX 3D can be exploited as a narrative medium. So much of creator Steve Ditko's epic landscapes of far off dimensions and astral planes are beautifully rendered, feeling every bit like a mix between comic book masterpiece and your favorite prog rock album cover.
3D films on the whole are pretty used up at this point, with very few examples actually justifying the inflated cost of admission. In Doctor Strange, the mindbending visuals take viewers to an entirely different realm of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and if you don't see this on the largest screen possible, you're only cheating yourself out of a truly unique experience.
It's this experience that elevates Doctor Strange above it's peers, save for the cosmic otherworldliness of James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy. But where that film succeeded with an original narrative, Doctor Strange is weighed down by all the conventions of an origin story.
And unfortunately, that's where the film crashes woefully back to Earth.
Again, even the worst parts of this film are not necessarily bad, but the disappointment comes from a script, worked on in parts by C. Robert Cargill (Sinister) and Dan Harmon (Rick and Morty) that brings the story so close yet so far from its potential, but more on that in a moment.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Dr. Stephen Strange in a role that fanboys near and far clamored for him to have, and it doesn't take long for him to prove them justified.
Because he doesn't have many films under his belt using an American accent, there was some worry that his take on a New York-born Strange might falter in spots. Surprisingly, unlike his laughable Boston accent in Black Mass, Cumberbatch pulls it off well, never letting it become a distraction to his acting abilities.
Now due large in part to the character's arrogant nature, it's not hard to compare Cumberbatch's performance as an amalgamation of his successful take on Sherlock Holmes and Hugh Laurie's Dr. Greg House. Stephen Strange is detached, arrogant, flip and extremely talented as a surgeon, but it is after everything is taken away in an accident that leaves his hands from him that Cumberbatch sheds just enough of that to expose a type of vulnerability that we really haven't seen in superhero films to date.
It's that vulnerability that never escapes Cumberbatch's performance, even as Strange becomes adept at the mystic arts, which buoys his performance, making Strange immensely likable while also maintaining a more humble level of arrogance. In short, the performance as a whole is nuanced, and honestly worth as much of the price of admission as the trippy visuals.
To a lesser degree, Chiwetel Ejiofor offers a staid performance as future rival Karl Mordo. His job in the film is basically two-fold: on one hand, Ejiofor has to serve as a catalyst to Cumberbatch to spur him through his transformation, and he also has to set himself up for future films as an antagonist. He accomplishes both in an amiable fashion, but is limited by the themes in the script which, as promised, I'll get to later.
Tilda Swinton, as the culturally whitewashed Ancient One, is who she usually is, androgynous and etherial. She effortlessly provides the sort of gravitas that a role like this calls for, even if we've seen it so many times before. Like Ejiofor, she is a prisoner of the script, and while it shouldn't matter, because the film is not about her, what the plot reveals about her does her a disservice by not being able to do more.
Before Cumberbatch was cast, I originally thought Mads Mikkelsen would've made for an extreme take on Strange, largely based on his great work as Hannibal Lecter in the short-lived NBC series. Instead, we get him as main antagonist Kacelius, a very one-note villain who really doesn't have to be, but again, is imprisoned by a script that promises more than it delivers.
As for the criminal misuse of Rachel McAdams, not much can be said other than this: In 2016, we have to get beyond the use of women in film as devices to either tell what to do or to go away. That's pretty much her total use in the film, and one has to argue the actual value of a love interest for a main character who spends so much time in love with himself. Such two-dimensional characters are better left in the comics.
To counterbalance for the preventative whitewashing of The Ancient One, Strange's usual manservant, Wong, played dutifully by Benedict Wong, is transformed into a stronger, more assertive character, who, in the end serves more as comic relief than whatever they were probably intending.
So now, let's talk about the script, because we need to.
What Derrickson and Cargill do with the script is largely utilitarian to the necessities of an origin film, so in that, I can in no way fault them. However, unwittingly or not, they created overall themes that they also ultimately drop the ball on, and that's the most heartbreaking part of Doctor Strange.
The themes in question are betrayal and loss.
Each character in the film, at different points, exhibits some level of betrayal as a response to their loss. And what makes that so interesting, and ultimately so disappointing is that at no one point, even through growth and transformation is Stephen Strange different. He's changed, certainly, but he is still arrogant and brash, even with the added sense of humility. Karl Mordo is also the same, as is the Ancient One and Kacelius.
These characters are all bound by their failures, or more importantly, deflecting them, and instead of exploring those themes to greater conclusions, Dan Harmon was hired to funny up the script, and in crucial moments, that is such a crime.
To be sure, Doctor Strange has genuinely funny moments, but after seeing the film, its hard not to question whether that much comic relief was necessary to sell this film.
Granted, it could've been too easy to make Doctor Strange into some overly ponderous, maudlin film, dripping with sorrow and seriousness, but I don't know if the reverse helps the film more than it hurts.
From the misshapen and Fantasia-like Cloak of Levitation to the sophomoric banter between Strange and Wong, the jokes are there, but they simply feel too cutesy and contrived.
But despite the grievances that had to be aired, it's clear that Doctor Strange, while not the best of Marvel Studios, is strong enough as a standalone film, and introduces the very character the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed to kick it into high gear for the sheer cosmic madness that should be present in Avengers: Infinity War.
On that level alone, Doctor Strange is a rousing success, and worth more than one viewing.
Speaking for myself, I'll be waiting for the YouTube edits where some enterprising individual takes the LSD trip-like visuals and matches them to various tracks from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.
It'll be worth it.
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Written by Jon Spaihts and Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill, Based on the Marvel Comics by Steve Ditko
Produced by Kevin Feige
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt
Running Time: 115 minutes