This year was a big year for superhero movies, with 2016 seeing the release of franchise tent-pole films like Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, and X-Men: Apocalypse, as well as their weird little off-shoots like Deadpool and Suicide Squad. The genre has come to dominate much of the movie landscape and we cap off this year’s wealth of superhero movies with Marvel Studio’s Doctor Strange.
As an entry in the genre, Doctor Strange is a wonderful addition, offering something new and exciting for viewers who’ve been regularly watching superhero movies since the early 2000s. As an entry in the lauded Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange is a fine addition, following Marvel’s origin formula to a T, with a flourish here and there to distinguish it from, say, Iron Man.
And that is perhaps all that’s dragging Doctor Strange down from being a really great addition to the MCU – while watching its story unfold, you will no doubt feel like you’ve watched it before. A wealthy, egotistical man who is the absolute best in his field has that perfect life stripped away from him when he’s terribly injured. Seeking out a new and radical treatment, he also stumbles across incredible power, grows as a person, and eventually becomes the hero. Die-hard fans might take offense at my distilling of Dr. Stephen Strange and Tony Stark’s origins into the same journey, but it’s not my doing, it’s the film’s.
That being said, we may have all watched this story before, but we certainly haven’t seen it like this before. Doctor Strange is, without a doubt, a visual marvel. Taking its cues from previous groundbreaking visual effects films like The Matrix and Inception, Doctor Strange is an absolute treat for the eyes. Whether it’s the escheresque landscapes its characters must navigate, ignoring practically every law of physics, or the stunning way in which magical energy is manifested, to look at Doctor Strange is to see the future potential in bringing these imaginative superhero stories to life. It may have taken three tries for Marvel to get the “look” of The Hulk right, but they nail Strange and his magical realm on their first attempt.
As the smug doctor, Benedict Cumberbatch is quite good. He’s no Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, the irresistibly charming center which the rest of the MCU orbits, and I don’t imagine he’ll fill that role as easily as Marvel seems to want him to. Still, it’s a strong performance and one that will likely only improve now that the role is established. Tilda Swinton is, as expected, fantastic as the ageless Ancient One. (Though I still question why an Asian actor couldn’t have been cast, allowing them to subvert a stereotypical character rather than ignore it all together.) Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong are also wonderful as fellow sorcerers Mordu and Wong, and though their roles are minor here, there’s a lot of potential for the characters in future installments.
Marvel superhero films are almost universally celebrated, but there is one element in where they repeatedly suffer: villains. Outside of Loki and Civil War‘s Zemo, they’ve all been pretty forgettable (and actually, Zemo is kind of forgettable, too, but that’s part of why he’s so great). For Doctor Strange, the main villain is Kaecilius, a former apprentice of the Ancient One gone rogue, and Mads Mikkelsen elevates the mostly one note character with a menacing performance. The bigger bad here is Dormammu, ruler of the dark dimension, and while he’s a vague evil entity, the final confrontation between him and Strange is unique and therefor helps the film avoid the “destructive portal in the sky” pitfall.
Rachel McAdams is also in Doctor Strange as a requisite love interest. Her performance is serviceable, but she’s rarely ever that important to the overall plot. So while Doctor Strange manages to create a slightly more compelling villain, it still fails at doing anything memorable or remarkable with its female lead. One step forward, two steps back.
But if we’re discussing characters, there is only one who rises above everything to be the film’s real star – the Cloak of Levitation. Some may find it odd to call an object’s performance one of the best in the film, but it is. And for a film that’s an oddly serious Marvel movie, going for more of a dry wit than outright laughs, the Cloak brings a much needed levity to its scenes. (Ha! See what I did there? Yes, I’ll see myself out…)
Doctor Strange is a pretty good installment in a genre that’s becoming increasingly overstuffed. The plot is formulaic, highlighting both the good and bad of Marvel’s go-to origin pattern. Yet, with enjoyable performances and some absolutely stunning visual effects (seriously, see this in 3D and just bask in its beauty), Doctor Strange is better than most, but just not as great as we’ve come to expect of the MCU.