Doctor Strange Review: Marvel Warps Reality, Still Feels the Same

I can’t remember a better opening scene to a Marvel movie. We see the film’s villain, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), rip a few pages out of a CGI-infused textbook and escape through a portal of sparks that transports him to the streets of New York City. But hot on his tail is the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who overpowers Kaecilius’ minions with ease while turning a Manhattan alleyway with power equivalent to solving a Rubik’s Cube while looking through a translucent kaleidoscope. It’s stunning, weird, and, for the first time in a while, unlike anything we’ve seen from Marvel before. This teaser brings on the mystic corner of the Marvel universe, a goal that just might be the only thing on Doctor Strange‘s mind.

Next, we meet Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), an arrogant surgeon that the film takes on a heavily overstated arc of ridding himself of his ego. There’s a horrific car crash that, through the unstable magic of suspension of disbelief, only leaves Strange’s hands unusable. A surgeon is ripped of his tools, but there’s a higher power in the mountains that just might heal him. And so the barebones superhero origin progresses, though a bit more rushed than we’re used to.

Director Scott Derrickson keeps Marvel’s fourteenth feature moving at a brisk pace, largely at the sacrifice of his supporting cast. We only really get a sense of who Strange and the Ancient One really are, with the talent put on display for Mordo (Chiwetal Ejiofor), Christine (Rachel McAdams), and Kaevilius criminally underutilized. Marvel has always had a villain problem, frankly, but at least Mikkelsen has the screen presence to make up for what the script lacks. More troubling, however, is the lack of attention on the rest of the cast. Christine is a far cry from Pepper Potts or even Jane Foster, while Mordo’s role only really comes together in the asterisk of an end-credits scene. This is a fresh problem for a film from Marvel Studios, and one they’d be best to correct for the next origin story.

Cumberbatch, meanwhile, isn’t quite the blown-out-of-the-water perfect casting revelation that Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, or even Paul Rudd were, but he’s a competent actor in a starring role here that might prove more useful as a supporting one when Avengers: Infinity War eventually hits. Faring best here is Swinton, who feels riskily off-brand in this sort of big studio tentpole. But she combines the sheer power of a superhero with the light, fluffy tone Marvel has always gone for with the slightly left-of-center tone the film is desperately trying to capture. She’s the best thing about this otherwise run-of-the-mill Marvel movie.

But then, Marvel has now spent almost a decade spoiling us with great superhero films that, more often than not, stand strong independently but still weave together as a cohesive whole. Doctor Strange is definitely on the lower side of the studio’s spectrum, but it’s got its pleasant bits. The overall arc of the film may not be fresh, but it still works. Far fresher are the mind-bending set pieces, especially a late second act turn that takes the concept of the opening scene and expands it to the entire island of Manhattan for a visually arresting, seemingly LSD driven chase sequence. With the comedic well running drier than usual on this entry, it helps that we’re getting literally a whole new realm for where superhero action can go. That might be enough for most audiences, and that’s fine. The lack of dramatic heft in Doctor Strange is hardly indicative of Marvel slowing down. Just six months after Captain America: Civil War proved just how hard of an emotional gut punch it can deliver, Marvel still gets a pass for the unremarkable yet completely watchable additions to the franchise that are released between the true showstoppers. And there’s got to be one of those on the horizon, with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok all hitting theaters in 2017. Until this theory is proved wrong, Doctor Strange can just be a slight misstep in the grand scheme of things. There will be more missteps, but there will be more showstoppers too. Grade: B-

By Matt Dougherty

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