I had only seen Doctor Strange once, when it was first released in November 2016. I remembered enjoying it, but not really remembering much of the plot or intentions, which could have been an indicator that it wasn’t a very memorable experience for me compared to other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
After a second viewing, I think that’s a fair assessment, but it doesn’t mean I dislike the movie. Really it just means that I think the movie is decent. Not bad or good, just decent.
I’ve heard people call it an Iron Man clone. I can see that, but I disagree with it. Granted, there are more than few similarities between Dr. Stephen Strange and Tony Stark with regard to personality, but there’s more than enough to separate the two and not call Strange’s movie a clone of Stark’s. It is however, a true origin movie for the sorcerer supreme, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role.
Stephen Strange is an accomplished neurosurgeon with an ego the size of New York. Self-absorbed, narcissistic and arrogant as hell until a car accident causes severe nerve damage to his hands and robs him of his gifted surgical ability. Going to great expense to find a treatment to fix his hands, Strange obsessively discovers a man named Jonathan Pangborn, played by Benjamin Bratt, who found a treatment that repaired his spinal damage and allowed him to walk again. Pangborn informs Strange that it was the people of Kamar-Taj that helped him heal himself and the battered doctor travels across the world to seek the village out and find whoever helped him.
It’s there that Strange meets Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Baron Mordo, a disciple of The Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton. What they show Strange is their ability to channel energy from the multiverse into magic in this universe and how they use it to defend the Earth from magical threats and enemies that the Avengers either can’t be bothered with or are ill-equipped to deal with. In this case, it’s Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius, a former student of The Ancient One that defected with a group of followers and became disciples of Dormammu, a godlike creature obsessed with absorbing the Earth into the Dark Dimension forever under the guise of immortality.
Ok, so the story for Doctor Strange is pretty solid overall. He finds these wizards that he hopes will heal his hands so that he can go back to his old life and in the process finds humility and growth that he needs to become a better person and serve an even greater cause than his Hippocratic Oath even provided him. He discovers that he’s a fast learner for casting spells, gets well-acquainted with the Eye of Agamotto AKA The Time Stone, and is in a very different and more mature place by the time the movie is over.
The problem is that it all happens too fast at 115 minutes. This is the first time in the MCU that I can look at one of its movies and say that it needed an extra 10 to 15 minutes because in my opinion it really did. The beginning of the film where we see Strange’s life as a surgeon and watch it deteriorate after the accident happens so quickly that we don’t get a chance to absorb just how devastating it is for him. I mean we get the picture, but it just doesn’t have a lot of depth and emotional weight to it. It’s very matter of fact as it is presented to us.
For that matter, so is the magical part of this movie as well. The controversy surrounding Tilda Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One is well-known and I completely understand the “white-washing” complaints. As it pertains to the movie itself though, the bigger issue is how Swinton plays the character for the story. She is an almost completely expositional character, meant only to explain what is happening at an efficient pace for the movie’s shorter runtime. She accomplishes that, but in the process, we feel nothing for her character at all, not even contempt at the revelation that she was tapping into Dark Dimension powers the whole time just like Kaecilius and his zealots. Swinton is a really good actress though, so I wonder if that was a case of the script itself or how she was told to deliver it based on the targeted length of the film. Either way, it’s an unfortunate oversight in my opinion.
On top of that, Strange’s development as a sorcerer is almost lightning quick. I know Wong tells him that he was made to cast spells or something to that effect, but we really don’t see a true process of trial and error for an extended period of time as he’s learning these spells, especially the time related ones with the Eye of Agamotto. If the training scenes in this film were more like Ant-Man, where there’s trial and error and some visual and emotional growth before he figures out how to make it work, I think that would have strengthened the movie a great deal in that department. As it is, it moves along fast enough to get us from Point A to Point B at almost breakneck speed.
The runtime issue also doesn’t help Mordo’s development as he is to be a by the book sorcerer that doesn’t bend the rules even a little to save the day and grows ever more distrustful of Strange and the sorcerer’s in general as they continue to break rules to stop Kaecilius and keep Dormammu away from Earth. It’s not that you don’t believe his feelings, it’s just happening pretty quick. Ironic, considering that time and how we deal with mortality in life is a major theme of this movie.
One thing that is absolutely on point with Doctor Strange is the VFX. It’s some of the best in the MCU without question. Bending city streets and buildings and playing around with center of gravity so that the characters are running on floors and walls at the same time seamlessly is breathtaking and I remember almost getting dizzy in the IMAX theater the first time seeing it. The Cloak of Levitation looks great as well. Michael Giacchino scored this movie, and I had previously complained that it wasn’t one of his best. While I still don’t think it’s quite on par with his other work, it’s still a very solid score and has a definitive theme for Strange in the movie.
Kaecilius is really just shy of Malekith as far as a plot device villain. Not the worst, but not that far either, which is a shame considering how awesome Mikkelsen has proved himself to be playing a villain in his career. Rachel McAdams also gets severely underused as well as Strange’s colleague and girlfriend, Dr. Christine Palmer. The scenes where Strange shows up at the hospital as a sorcerer needing her help are great, but she could have used some stronger development as a character without question.
The humor in this movie is there and definitely indicative of the Tonal Turn. It’s somewhere in between Age of Ultron and Ant-Man, but not nearly Guardians of the Galaxy. Most of it is situational one-liners and wisecracks instead of outright jokes, but someone looking for a more serious take on the sorcerer supreme doesn’t necessarily get it here, though the humor really doesn’t bug me much at all. It fits what’s happening and doesn’t derail the story.
Doctor Strange is a decent MCU movie and an interesting introduction to the world of Earth magic that also introduced us to a new Infinity Stone, the last one that we would discover to this point before Avengers: Infinity War. The mid-credit scene featuring Thor raised a lot of questions concerning what he was up to and we would find out a whole year later when Thor: Ragnarok released in theaters, but first we had to go back to outer space for some……fun.
I promise, I will keep an open mind on the next review. Seriously, I’m going to be fair about the next movie. I mean it. I hope so, anyway. Here we go…