The Marvel movie machine just keeps chugging along, and at this point, it seems completely unstoppable. To back that claim up, let's just reflect on the fact that a movie about a psychedelic superhero from the 1960s just made $85 million this weekend, enough for the 8th highest opening weekend of the year. This comes only a year after a movie about a man who transforms into an ant grossed $519 million at the worldwide box office and two years after a wacky film with a talking raccoon and a giant tree became the 8th biggest superhero film of all time. Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange all seemed like gambles when taken at face value, but thanks to the efficiency of Kevin Feige's leadership and the power of the Marvel brand, they've all turned into global megahits. The studio hasn't missed yet, and while everybody talks about superhero fatigue, this year has given us no reason to believe that these films will suddenly disappear. The Marvel brand is rock solid and they have free reign to do whatever the hell they want.
They've taken the franchise in some fascinating directions, but all along, they've maintained a singular formula that is applied to nearly every film. Sometimes, that formula is easy to overlook- for example, Guardians of the Galaxy suffers from a few common Marvel issues, but it's just so much fun. Other times, the flaws of the Marvel blueprint are brutally obvious. Doctor Strange unfortunately falls into the latter category, which is all the more disappointing considering how visually dazzling it is. To me, Doctor Strange represents both the best and worst of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It has some of the best visual effects of the year, some spectacular moments of emotion, great characters, and a knockout cast of veteran actors. Simultaneously, it suffers from a weak villain, tedious plotting, an abundance of comic relief, and a dearth of real stakes. It takes several bold chances, but Doctor Strange is one of the weaker installments in the MCU, an origin story that just falls short of the mark.
As many have noted, Doctor Strange's story is remarkably similar to Iron Man's origin. The film follows the adventures of Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a neurosurgeon who is devoted to his own personal glory. He's arrogant, egotistical, narcissistic, and doesn't use his gifts for good. Basically, he's a prototypical douchebag. His arrogance caused the downfall of his relationship with Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), a kind fellow surgeon who cares deeply for Stephen. On his way to an awards banquet one night, Strange zips through traffic in his Lamborghini before crashing and being thrown off a hill. The accident doesn't kill him, but his hands are completely destroyed. His nerves are shattered, and even after life-saving surgery, the odds of Strange being able to perform as a doctor again are slim.
Strange searches for a cure, trying experimental procedures and hoping that something will help him return to the operating room. Eventually, an increasingly discouraged Strange hears of a place called Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu, Nepal, which once used unconventional techniques to heal a paralyzed man (Benjamin Bratt). Strange spends the last of his money on a one-way ticket to Nepal, and finally finds the magical world of Kamar-Taj. There, he meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a sorcerer and master of the mystic arts. With the assistance of Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong), The Ancient One teaches Strange the powers of the magical dimension. Being the genius that he is, Strange picks up the craft quickly and becomes one of the most powerful sorcerers at Kamar-Taj. As his powers grow, Strange is faced with a threat from Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a rogue sorcerer who wants to unleash the dark dimension on planet Earth. With an impending apocalypse, Strange must overcome his ego in order to reach his potential and save the world.
Even though my feelings are relatively mixed on the 14th installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there's a lot to love about Doctor Strange. For starters, the visual effects are unlike anything we've seen in a modern blockbuster. While Inception and Interstellar featured more refined technical elements, the sheer magic of Strange is hard to deny. The film has the appearance of a surrealist painting come to life, blended with the acid trip psychedelics of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a true assault on the senses, and there are some moments of awe-inspiring wonder that are unlike anything I've seen before. Director Scott Derrickson's sensory gusto is admirable, and it's tempting to overlook Doctor Strange's narrative flaws on the strength of its trippy visuals alone.
The film also features an exceptional cast, all of whom give their all to the material. Benedict Cumberbatch was always the perfect choice to play the prickly, arrogant, and somewhat unlikable anti-hero, and he delivers as expected. Cumberbatch is a charming superstar actor, and while the script doesn't necessarily do him a ton of favors, he's a welcome addition to the MCU. Plus, he's got some great backup. Tilda Swinton is consistently terrific, and despite the whitewashing controversy, she's pretty great as The Ancient One. She basically plays a variation of Old Ben Kenobi from the original Star Wars trilogy, and she sells it terrifically. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong are excellent as well, and they all have great character moments with Cumberbatch and Swinton. The only weak links are Rachel McAdams and Mads Mikkelsen, both of whom are under-utilized by the script (more on Mikkelsen's villainous character later).
But even with kaleidoscopic visuals and stellar character moments, Doctor Strange is overwhelmed by the inherent flaws in the Marvel formula. Chief among those problems is the story, which is almost shockingly tedious. In all honesty, I probably couldn't tell you a single thing about what this movie is actually about. There's magic and the bad guy wants to destroy the world. That's about it. You're probably asking right now- isn't this a problem in all Marvel movies? Yes, it certainly is. Guardians of the Galaxy had an extremely weak story and many of the other origin movies suffer from the same problem. But even if there's some redundancy and formula in the plot, those movies are rarely boring, which is an issue that Doctor Strange surprisingly runs into. There was a point in the film where my mind just did a record scratch and went "Wait......what's going on?" The story feels secondary to everything else that Derrickson is trying to do and while the film survives on the charms of the visuals and Cumberbatch for a good chunk of time, the flaws catch up to it.
Marvel's villain problem has been well-established over time, and quite frankly, it's the issue that has plagued the franchise since the beginning. Remember Malekith the Accursed? Oh, how about Ronan the Accuser? Darren Cross? Obadiah Stane? Odds are that you probably didn't even know those were real characters. Sure, Marvel has had a few good villains in the form of Loki, Alexander Pierce, and even Baron Zemo to a certain extent, but it's a recurring theme in the MCU nonetheless. I had high hopes for Mads Mikkelsen's Kaecilius- after all, this is the guy who created one of the most menacing Bond villains of all time. Unfortunately, Kaecilius is another forgettable Marvel villain who doesn't manage to be scary or intimidating, hindered by a severe lack of charisma and weak motivation. The background given on Kaecilius is vague, and it's never really clear why he's doing any of this beyond the fact that the story needs a villain. Honestly, part of me wishes that Marvel would just stop trying. If you're not gonna get it right with Mads Mikkelsen, it's never gonna happen.
However, films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have survived bad villains before and they'll survive them again. So what makes the structural problems in Doctor Strange stand out? I think it's because there's such a sharp contrast between the visual imagination on display and the rote, familiar storytelling. This is such a unique film in the Marvel collection, and I'm tantalized by the possibilities of the multiverse crossing over with The Avengers. Scott Derrickson has crafted some truly sensational action scenes, highlighted by mind-bending effects and a devotion to jaw-dropping moments with limitless possibilities. Doctor Strange feels truly out-of-this-world at times, and it's a testament to Derrickson's team that the film is unlike anything we've ever seen. But at the same time, that sense of wonder compounds the film's basic flaws. I noticed things in this film that are equally prevalent in other Marvel movies, but this time, they nagged at me.
To give an example, the proliferation of comic relief into nearly every scene of the movie is so incredibly annoying. Marvel is a family studio, so there's never going to be any brutality or real sense of dread. I've come to accept that, and as much as I wish that there were real consequences in this franchise, I know that it's never going to happen. However, the constant diffusion of tension through witty quips and sight gags has grown tiresome, and I don't understand why Marvel feels the need to shoehorn it into every film. The prime instance of this in Doctor Strange involves a fight scene between Strange and one of Kaecilius' men. It's at the point where the fight is growing in intensity, and the henchman has Strange on the ropes. Suddenly, Strange's cape begins to attack the man, wrapping itself around him and smacking him into the walls. And just like that, the audience is laughing. It's funny at first, but if you think about it, a pointless gag ruins a great moment. And why? I don't know. It makes sense in certain contexts, but it's getting to be too much of a good thing, a statement that could be applied to the idea of Marvel origin stories as a whole.
Doctor Strange is an entertaining film, but a frustrating one, a movie that is both innovative and riddled with problems. Most audiences will have a good time, and I can't blame them for that. This movie pretty much delivers on its promises- fun characters, trippy action, and a continued connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. But when a movie as cutting-edge and inventive as Doctor Strange still reeks of familiarity, I think it's a sign that the formula needs to be shaken up again. They don't need to abandon what has brought them success, but there are some tired elements that just aren't working and some other elements in serious need of repair. Marvel has mixed things up before and they'll do it again- I have faith in this studio. This is a decently fun ride, but Doctor Strange can mostly be chalked up as a run-of-the-mill superhero flick, bolstered mostly by a plethora of visual ingenuity.
THE FINAL GRADE: B- (6.7/10)
Image Credits: Coming Soon, Joblo