"Have you seen that at a gift shop?"
It's virtually impossible for Marvel Studios to dazzle audiences anymore because they seem to have done it all by now. A scant eight years into their dominance of the comic book movie industry, the studio has churned out fourteen films and from my perspective, they're drowning in a sea of sameness. The two best films in their entire oeuvre, Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, managed to be clever and unique tweaks on age old film formulas, warped to fit into the structure of a comic book movie. My greatest hope for Doctor Strange is that it would join those two films in delivering something truly new and different to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It failed to do so, but not for lack of trying.
There's a great movie aching to break out of Doctor Strange, but whether through the fault of studio mandates or a script that feels like it was worked on by at least a dozen writers, let alone the three men credited with writing the script. This sort of thing seems to be the best a Marvel movie can hope for anymore: Being just different enough to keep the audience engaged, but not taking any worthwhile risks or doing anything that really goes against the grain. This is a business, after all, and it runs like one. Lord does it ever.
Benedict Cumberbatch, perhaps the most British man alive, plays New York born and bred Dr. Stephen Strange, an arrogant neurosurgeon who, very quickly into the film, finds himself in the most violent car accident this side of Michael Bay movie. I'm not entirely sure why they maintained the impulse to leave the character based in New York, particularly when Bandisnatch can't really get his accent to rise above Dr. Gregory House-lite, but I digress. His accident leaves his hands permanently damaged and while seeking a miracle cure in the (vaguely drawn) "east," he falls in with The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who offers to not only heal his hands, but open his mind to an entire multiverse that exists around him.
The rest of the film is a pretty straightforward origin story from there on out, with the hero learning to control his powers, then having to test them before he's ready, then meeting the villain, then concocting a plan to stop the villain. Thankfully the cast and the visuals are able to power through some major league script problems. The film is constantly torn between thinking it needs some truly terrible jokes in order to maintain its levity and rehashing the old "he's not ready" problem that every hero in every Marvel movie confronts.
About that humor, it's truly awful for the most part, which is a shame considering Dan Harmon did a pass on the script. If Doctor Strange suffers most from anything, it's an identity crisis. It has no idea what kind of film it wants to be, but thankfully the characters keep things moving in the right direction. The most fascinating character by a country mile is Chiwetel Ejiofor's Mordo, a fellow wizard who fights alongside Strange until he learns that Strange is willing to cross lines in the name of justice which Mordo himself is not able to cross. It's a fascinating dichotomy and sets Mordo up as a much better antagonist for Strange going forward.
At the end of the day, Doctor Strange—like most Marvel movies—is entertaining to watch, but ultimately ends up being thoroughly indistinguishable from at least a dozen other similar films. There's got to be a reason to watch these films beyond just being a fan of the source material or the fact that you know at this point exactly what to expect from Marvel. I find that to be part of the problem here. Marvel is more concerned with maintaining their brand than they are with telling worthwhile stories.
Furthermore, I understand the unique problem presented by a team of superheroes, namely that their origin stories all start to sound the same after a while. The fact that Stephen Strange's narrative isn't all that different from a dozen other arrogant rich guys who think the rules don't apply to them doesn't preclude you from having to tell that story in a new, different, or interesting way. Doctor Strange is partially successful in doing this, at least inasmuch as he doesn't fight a villainous version of himself in the third act, along with several other staples of the origin picture that this flick jettisoned.
Unfortunately Doctor Strange is ultimately weighed down by its lack of originality. For every thing it manages to do well, there are at least two cliches the film would have been better off without. It took Tony Stark two solo movies and most of the first Avengers movie to get the arc that Strange gets in just his first adventure, so that sort of storytelling alacrity earns the film a few brownie points, but the minute Strange begins monologuing to the villain about how he's learned to be selfless, one wishes they weren't retreading things that have already been done within this Cinematic Universe.
There's a lot to like and admire about Doctor Strange, and I'm much more likely to revisit it than most Marvel movies thanks to its visual acumen and cool set pieces, but it's ultimately as deeply flawed as virtually every other Marvel movie. Pixar at least has the good sense to bury their formula behind some great stories... I hope the day is coming when Marvel learns how to do the same, because much like the main character of this film, the potential for greatness is unlimited.