It seems we now have a pattern with Marvel movies – More of the same, except with entirely different characters learning about whole new worlds.
That may seem confusing, but take a look at the many heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Tony Stark, Thor, Peter Quill aka Star Lord, Scott Lang aka Ant-Man and now Stephen Strange. All of these characters have the same defining characteristics – Ego-driven, self-absorbed, often feel like the weight of the world rests on their shoulders alone, and think of themselves as indestructible or unstoppable. To these heroes, the world is theirs for the taking because they are the best at what they do.
Of course, over the course of their films these hot heads learn to temper their ego-mania, some more than others (Iron Man’s biggest strength still seems to be pride in himself), but “Doctor Strange” is the first one of the Marvel films to outright say that having too much of an ego can be a bad thing. Heroes like Thor and Star Lord learn about humility, teamwork and trust, but Stephen Strange mainly learns that he is not the center of the universe and never will be. Most of the movie is Stephen coming to terms with that knowledge, and thus his ego-driven persona is mostly gone by the end of the film.
I appreciate this approach to Stephen Strange’s character, as it gives us more of the lovable pricks we’ve come to expect from Marvel films, while also taking it in a new direction and giving us a character that learns from his mistakes. Out of all the Marvel films, Stephen has the most growth as a character, changing from a Sherlock Holmes-like surgeon who dances to music during an operation into a patient, logical sorcerer who would rather talk his way out of a situation instead of resorting to violence.
In “Doctor Strange,” we learn of a whole new side of this world, one devoted to magic and sorcery. When Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is in a terrible car accident, his once expert surgical hands are reduced to shaking husks of their former selves, ruining Stephens’ career. He spends his vast fortune looking for a cure, but nobody can fix the injuries in Stephen’s mind. With nothing left to lose, he spends the last of his money on a one-way trip to Nepal, with the promise that a being known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) can heal him, and introduce Stephen to his true destiny.
Once again, Marvel is pitch-perfect with their casting decisions, especially with Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton in “Doctor Strange.” Cumberbatch nails the ego of a surgeon who can pick his patients (just like another self-absorbed genius Benedict has played in the past), while still capturing the whimsy and curiosity of learning about this magical world. His American accent can be hit-or-miss sometimes, but I couldn’t see anyone else playing Doctor Strange.
Tilda Swinton, while stirring up controversy by playing a character that has historically been an Asian male, still does wonders for this role. Swinton is one of the few actors who is so ambiguous about her roles, mostly because she is so ambiguous herself. Her approach is “less is more,” leaving a lot of mystery and intrigue about her characters. Now she’s playing a character that has supposedly lived for thousands of years through some unknown dark magic, yet still seems to be in tune with the evolving world around her. So while the role should have gone to someone else, I’m glad it went to Swinton, because we got a cryptic performance out of her.
But my favorite character in “Doctor Strange” was certainly Stephen’s cape. This little guy is a sentient piece of cloth, yet gets more character than Rachel McAdams does in this film. He saves Stephen’s life on more than one occasion, including slamming a guy’s face repeatedly into the ground. He has no lines of dialogue yet develops this strange friendship with Strange. The cape is like the magic carpet from “Aladdin,” in that they both have a lot to say, but have no way of saying it.
The visuals for “Doctor Strange” are mind-bending and something I’ve never quite seen before. One of the best scenes in the film is a chase between Strange and the villains through New York City while the space around them is constantly being warped and twisted, like being inside of a kaleidoscope. This chase sequence is unpredictable and relies less on hand-to-hand combat and more on outsmarting the opponent and the landscape. Certainly one of the most visually appealing Marvel films to date.
However, outside of all this, there isn’t much else to “Doctor Strange.” The story is predictable, the villains aren’t special (even casting Mads Mikkelsen as the antagonist Kaecillus didn’t save that), the comedy is forgettable and the film doesn’t get interesting until the final act when the villains plans become clear. The film is devoid of the usual Marvel charm, though there are some attempts to inject humor and light-hearted ribbing into this dark story, even if it doesn’t always work.
So while there are parts of “Doctor Strange” that are enjoyable, overall this one of the weaker entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is nice to see ego-driven know-it-all taken down a peg, unlike other Marvel entires, as well as some great performances from Cumberbatch and Swinton, this one doesn’t stand out to me. But it is something far different from what Marvel has done in the past, which does make it worth your time.
Final Grade: C+