Doctor Strange is pretty 101 in terms of plot progression and pace, but it’s those more off-kilter flourishes that make the film sing.
By now, the Marvel model for movie success is so airtight that seeing a new release set in their sprawling cinematic universe feels like an unnecessary endeavor. From the announcements about creative talent and casting to the trailers, it’s not difficult to extrapolate the movie from sense memory and an osmosis-driven understanding of the Marvel house style. Doctor Strange, even more so than last year’s Ant-Man, exemplifies the far-reaching success of these films. Ten years ago, a movie about Doctor Strange would be a pipe dream or a surefire schlockfest. Ten years from now, there’ll probably a $100 million Squirrel Girl flick, because, stagnation be damned, they’ve made another minor comics property into a serviceable piece of mainstream entertainment.
There are a lot of “superhero origin story” boxes to be ticked here, but those check marks come with a flourish and efficiency that overpowers any cape fatigue the average audience member may be feeling here in year eight of Marvel cinematic dominance. The movie is pared down significantly from the ridiculous scope of Captain America: Civil War, functioning like a more tightly plotted take on 2008’s original Iron Man, minus the rambling, improvisational-sounding dialogue exchanges and messy final act. Does it underachieve? Sure. But for a straightforward actioner, it packs an economical amount of punch for the audiences’ respective entertainment dollars.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a rich, arrogant shitbag neurosurgeon who requires a fairytale rejiggering of his priorities and sense of self, coming in the form of a swift, brutal car crash that leaves his precious hands rendered useless. On the verge of being penniless, Strange meets a man (played by Benjamin Bratt) who came back from an incurable injury through exploring Eastern medicine. With no other options, Strange journeys to Nepal, where he meets the Ancient One (whitewashed Tilda Swinton) and her student Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who educate him in the ways of magic. Just in time, too, as one of the Ancient One’s old students, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is trying to destroy our realm to feed it to a being from the dark dimension called Dormammu.
It’s impressive how tight and efficient the film’s first act is, given the recent spate of bloated action fare that Hollywood has churned out. Every beat establishing Strange’s character is simple and quick, using some brash needle drops and strong visual storytelling to support Cumberbatch’s oft histrionic Gregory House impersonation. Before the interdimensional teleportation and colorful, magic kung fu swallows the picture whole, the film first succeeds as an engrossing drama. It’s obvious that genre spectacle is going to take over, but in the interim, there’s some compelling work at play.
Once gears switch, the movie falls somewhere between Hogwarts and the scenes in The Matrix where Neo gets the battery spiel explained to him, but it doesn’t feel as stale as the trailers might suggest. The storytelling is rigid and formulaic, but director Scott Derrickson executes the material with just enough quirk and panache to send a shock to the audience’s system, interjecting less cloying humor than the average Marvel release, not to mention a few situationally appropriate jump scares. The movie is pretty 101 in terms of plot progression and pace, but it’s those more off-kilter flourishes that make the film sing.
The movie keeps just enough oddball plates spinning to make its otherwise run-of-the-mill narrative a delight to behold. The marketing material leans heavily on Inception as a visual cue when showing the otherworldliness of this Marvel Universe corner, but the first moments of Strange’s awakening are far more psychedelic. That trippiness, along with an esoteric score from Michael Giacchino, provides some much-needed flavor in carving out a new space for Doctor Strange and the mystical elements of the MCU. Paired with some enjoyable visual gags (an extended bit with Strange and his living cape), it’s hard not to stay entertained.
A stacked cast, some competent action and a few third-act surprises—what’s not to like, right? It’s a fun, low-stakes affair that punches above its weight class just enough to not feel perfunctory. If there’s a problem to be found with Doctor Strange, it’s the frustrating whitewashing of the Ancient One, which isn’t suddenly cool just because they racebend Mordo into a black man. It isn’t that Swinton is bad in the role. In point of fact, just like the rest of the cast, she’s pretty stellar. But nothing she does with her performance says that they couldn’t have found an Asian actor to do equal if not exemplary work as well.
Still, there’s a think piece to be written (not by this writer) about the passive ways the film seems to counter the usual Chosen White Man paradigm. It isn’t the most elegant theme, but there’s something satisfying about a film where the typical white savior doesn’t end the movie as the end all, be all master of the mystic arts, but rather an integral part of a diverse network of sorcerers.
There’s a moment near the end of the second act when the Ancient One straight up tells Strange that everything isn’t about him. Almost intentionally, the camera spins around his puzzled face like that ubiquitously-memed .gif of Wee-Bey from “The Wire”. It’s an unsubtle moment, to be sure, but a welcome one given Marvel’s late-to-the-party dedication to onscreen diversity.