Doctor Strange Review

Posted: November 13, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

doctor-strange-comic-con-posterWritten by Daniel Simpson

If nothing else, Marvel are excellent marketers. I mean this both for the way they’ve used their own movies as basically two hour trailers for the next feature, but also for their conventional marketing campaigns. Specifically, I’m thinking of the trailers for Iron Man 3, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Captain America: Civil War, which all advertised themselves as being the “serious” movie, the one where Marvel threw off the gloves and delivered some real drama. Of course, all three ended up being more or less the standard light adventure storylines we’ve come to expect from the MCU. Occasionally, their films to take on that sense of gravitas (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, certain parts of Civil War), but for the most part, they keep things pretty light. It is for that reason that I never entirely bought into the marketing campaign for Doctor Strange, which also advertised itself as being pretty serious and heady, but really isn’t.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon whose hands are shattered in a car accident. Unable to continue his work, Strange seeks desperate means to heal himself. He soon learns of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a sorcerer in Kathmandu, Nepal who can teach Strange to use magic to heal himself. Strange begins training, but is soon sucked into a greater conflict with rogue sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who draws on dark powers which threaten the earth.

Narratively, there isn’t much new to be found in Doctor Strange. The titular character’s arc is basically the same as the arc from the first Iron Man: an arrogant genius suffers a trauma, learns new skills that give him great power which ultimately humbles him as he learns to help others. I had hoped that the backdrop of magical training and spirituality would bring some new ideas to the table (in terms of plot), but that isn’t really the case. In fact, we don’t get to see much of Strange’s training and his journey from broken skeptic to powerful sorcerer is missing a few steps. In the span of basically a scene, Strange jumps from barely being able to keep up with his peers to being an expert who has read dozens of books on the topic. I would have liked to see either more growth, or eliminate the origin story entirely and jump right into Strange as a powerful sorcerer. If an origin story was absolutely essential, than I wish the filmmakers had set the film over a longer time period.

Like most films of the MCU, Doctor Strange also suffers from some very weak villains. Kaecilius is basically the standard evil villain with magical powers who wants to unleash some sort of dark force. To the film’s credit, there is some attempt to explain his motives as drawing from a different perspective rather than just pure villainy, but there isn’t enough to make the character interesting and his scheme is still boring. I had hoped that the casting of an actor like Mads Mikkelsen meant that Kaecilius might have more to him, but like Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke, and Guy Pearce in the Iron Man films, it’s another case of a great actor wasted in an underdeveloped villain. The humour was also somewhat weak when compared to a lot of Marvel’s recent efforts. A lot of the comedy just felt a lot more forced.

What largely saves the film is the visual imagination on display, which is often beautiful and also leads to some pretty cool set-pieces. Director Scott Derrickson makes use of some Inception-style city bending but pushes it to even bigger levels and the results are really impressive. There’s also some really cool psychedelic moments that make use of some really vivid colours that are a lot of fun to explore. Such powers and visual ideas fuel the action, which ranks among the best the MCU has put forth yet. Highlights include a chase amidst an unfolding city, a fight between spectral beings phasing through walls, and a cool battle wherein time is reversed. The film also subverts action expectations during the climax. No spoilers, but the solution to the big threat at the end is genuinely clever and executed very well.

The cool visuals and the strong action scenes make me really want to embrace Doctor Strange. I’ve been fairly critical of the MCU’s lack of any real visual style and the fact that this film does aspire for greater visual filmmaking does help a lot but the film falls short in too many ways narratively. This doesn’t work too effectively as an origin story, and despite the inventive set-pieces, the lack of interesting villains makes it hard totally invest in as an action movie either.  There just isn’t enough to connect to and as such the effect of the visuals was somewhat muted on me. For a lot of people, I suspect the visual spectacle will be more than enough to justify a trip to the theater and that’s fair. The film is certainly worth seeing for its visual imagination, but I wanted a lot more from the story.

C+

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