Marvel Cinematic Universe, already overcrowded with superheroes, is adding another one to their list, and since every superhero in Marvel gets his own first movie, here’s one for Doctor Strange. Marvel has followed the same formula since the inception of the universe, and it seems to work surprisingly well, no matter how hackneyed these origin stories get.
A self-obsessed genius doctor, has his life ripped apart as a car accident renders his hands useless for his profession. When traditional medicine fails him, he travels the world looking for other healing methods, more mystical ones. When he does find what he is looking for, he is faced with a choice: to only heal himself and return to his life of fortune, or fight for something much greater than himself.
The first half is brilliant. Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as the suave, overweening doctor who is interested only in challenging cases that bring him popularity. He brings a charm to the character that reminded me of Hugh Laurie’s outstanding portrayal of House in the series, House MD. As the plot moves ahead, the doctor’s desperation when he can’t work his hands, his disbelief of the mystic arts, and his shock at learning how real they are, are all conveyed beautifully from an execution standpoint, speaking to Scott Derrickson’s flair for direction. Tilda Swinton as the doctor’s teacher sharing her mystic wisdom brings dignity to her gibberish speaking character, and stands out in every scene. However, none of these positives can match the breathtakingly awesome visual effects, which alone are worth the price of IMAX 3D. There are magnificent scenes of downtown New York twisting and turning as the sorcerers change the direction of gravity, that can only be described as mind bending. There is a scene where the doctor is transported through the universe through his mind, to shatter his skepticism of the supernatural, whose exceptional beauty can only be fully experienced in IMAX.
Once again, Marvel goes for the childish playful soundtrack, that never does justice to gravity of the situation ( even when the situation is universal destruction). The plot starts off with great potential but sluggishly moves towards an overused formula, that is not just cliched in Hollywood, but also within the Marvel universe. It resembles Thor and Iron-Man in so many ways: an arrogant self-obsessed protagonist, is gifted with some form of superpower that transforms him into a hero who serves something bigger than himself. About three quarters of the movie is spent establishing Strange’s origin story, which is handled brilliantly, but once the plot moves beyond the origin story, everything falls apart. The characters start blurting out rules of the mystic arts every few minutes that don’t make much sense. It feels like the writers just started making up stuff as they went along. The climax is too messy to fully comprehend, but by the time you get there, you have given up making sense of it all and are ready to accept anything. It is disappointing how Rachael McAdams is so underutilized and how her character is sidelined after a few scenes in the beginning. There aren’t even enough scenes to call her the love interest of the doctor.
My biggest problem with Doctor Strange, however, is that it takes the route of a Marvel fantasy movie and doesn’t impose any limits on its fantastic elements. There are two kinds of movies in the MCU. The first kind is more practical (Winter Soldier, Civil War), where more realistic issues, and relationships, are tackled. The second kind is more fantastic (Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers), where more magical plots like wormholes to alien worlds, and infinity stones are involved. Doctor Strange goes for the second kind, but it dives too deep into the fantasy. There are time loops, dark dimensions, mirror worlds, magical amulets, magical sling rings, levitating cloaks, souls interacting outside bodies, immortality, and a lot more. A certain amount of fantasy is acceptable but this one has no constraints. It doesn’t even treat these magical concepts with the sobriety they deserve. Everyone just plays along, like its not strange at all. Come on! We’re muggles after all.
The universe formula might be a hugely lucrative machine for these studios, but after a while, the intersections between the stories get too messy to handle. Even if Marvel doesn’t take itself too seriously, and a lot of plot-holes are overlooked because of the light tone of it’s universe, these formulaic stories and fantastic elements can really benefit from a darker tone, and more realistic stakes. These are precisely why Winter Soldier and Civil War were such great movies. They were so grounded in reality. Doctor Strange, is quite the opposite. I’ll rate it 7/10, mostly for a really good first half and for brilliant visual effects.