Directed by: Scott Derrickson.
Written by: Jon Spaihts and Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill based on the comics by Steve Ditko.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Stephen Strange), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mordo), Rachel McAdams (Dr. Christine Palmer), Benedict Wong (Wong), Mads Mikkelsen (Kaecilius), Tilda Swinton (The Ancient One), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr. Nicodemus West), Benjamin Bratt (Jonathan Pangborn), Scott Adkins (Lucian / Strong Zealot).
What the Marvel movies lack in originality, they make up for in consistency. Doctor Strange is the 14th film in Marvel’s ongoing series of interconnected films, which have started to include more and more obscure characters, known only to comic fans – like, of course, Doctor Strange. Visually, the film is similar to many of Marvel’s other films – although there is a welcome change with some trippy imagery throughout, including some that seem inspired by Nolan’s Inception – and even if the end of the movie is more CGI soup, at least it’s interesting CGI soup. This is yet another origin story – one that is very similar to Iron Man, as a rich asshole eventually becomes, well, less of an asshole upon discovering new powers. Yet, even if Doctor Strange follows the Marvel formula to a T – it’s all so well down, so well-acted, and downright entertaining, that you hardly care.
The story this time is about Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant neuro-surgeon – a rich genius who apparently has no family, and whose only friend is his (former?) girlfriend, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) – and even she has grown tired of how self-involved he is. One day, Dr. Strange is doing what rich assholes in the movies always do – looking at his phone, while driving his expensive sports car at high speeds along a winding mountain road, when he crashes. He survives, but his hands are ruined. Unless he can find a miracle cure, he’s down as a surgeon – something he cannot accept. He finally finds his way to Nepal, under the tutelage of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a bald headed, New Age healing spouting woman, who is the Sorceress Supreme – who protects the world from more mystical threats. She will teach Dr. Strange a lot of magic, pretty quickly – which is good because they need Dr. Strange to help fight against another former student – Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) – who wants to bring about a Dark Age for reasons.
Doctor Strange has its problems to be sure – many of them are standard issue Marvel problems. The origin story here isn’t overly original – it follows the same sort of pattern where the hero slowly realizes what he can do, and then gets better and better at it – eventually realizing just how powerful he can be. He’s got a few sidekicks this time – the underutilized Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), as another student of The Ancient One’s – much more rigid in his belief system, and the library master Wong (Benedict Wong) – whose funny precisely because he’s so humorless. Doctor Strange has a love interest, played by a very talented actress, who is basically given nothing to do. The villain is hardly memorable at all – which is a feat in itself, because he’s played by Mads Mikkelsen, who would be near the top of anyone list as an actor to cast as a villain. (It’s odd, that 14 films in, and we’re still at a count of two truly memorable villains – Loki and Ultron – and the later is debatable).
But a few things elevate Doctor Strange as well. For one, Cumberbatch is perfectly cast in the lead role – doing a great job as a complete and total asshole in the early scenes, and then fitting into the role as the mystical wizard he becomes as it goes along. Marvel has generally cast their heroes well – and Cumberbatch is no exception – he’s gets you through the moments when the films screenplay seems to be on autopilot. The very real criticism of whitewashing aside, Tilda Swinton is terrific in the role of The Ancient One as well – this role is, of course, a cliché, but Swinton makes it feels fresh and new – the Doomed Mentor, who is more flawed than they first appear. Swinton can play just about anything – and she does a great job here as well. The direction is fine, the special effects among the best Marvel has ever done, and there is at least a twist on the usual fight scenes in this film – it’s not all punches and chases, etc.
At this point, the Marvel movies have become akin to a television series that just has a couple, supersized episodes a year. We know what we’re going to get with each episode, and we come back to get that. Marvel knows this, and they deliver precisely that, with little in the way of surprises. That makes the movies easy to criticize – it makes it easy to bemoan the lack of originality in their films. And yet, Doctor Strange comes in the same year in which Marvel’s rival DC fell on their face not once, but twice with Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad – making overstuffed, overlong and almost incoherent movies that satisfied no one. Perhaps we should be as hard on Marvel – who has done a remarkable job at delivering consistent entertaining, twice a year, every year.