Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat, I’m not a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch. In fact, while writing that sentence, I had to make an effort to not refer to him by the name I normally do: Benedict Cucumberpatch. Granted, other than Imitation Game, which he was good in, my only exposure to his work has been either voice performances or small parts in ensemble pieces. He obviously has many fans, but I just don’t understand the appeal. Similarly, I was never a big reader of the Dr. Strange comics. Of course, through my years of avid comic fandom, the only time I’d ever read his stories was when he’d happened to crossover with the characters whom I did follow. Again, he has his fans, but I wasn’t one of them. While the debut of both men into the Marvel Cinematic Universe does little to change my opinion it has made one thing crystal clear: neither are going away any time soon.
Two years ago Guardians of the Galaxy had to introduce the space-faring expanse of the Marvel Comics universe into the Cinematic one, an idea which had been hinted at in previous films, while also fitting into the overall story that Marvel had spent years setting up. It did so beautifully. Now, Doctor Strange attempts to do the same with the magical, multi-dimensional side, extending far beyond the vaguely defined “magic” of characters like Thor and Scarlet Witch. However, the comparison between the two films basically ends there, beyond the now-familiar notes which tend to run through all Marvel movies. Still, if absolutely nothing else, Strange does its basic job well enough that future Marvel films can comfortably roam into the Mirror Dimension or the Sanctum Sanctorum without having to stretch credulity any further than they already do. And even if overreach does happen, Marvel can always fall back on what has become its crutch: Tony Stark made it.
Speaking of Stark, the film’s requisite origin story begins with Stephen Strange as an expert in his field, as brilliant as he is arrogant, spending money on fancy cars and dozens of fancy gadgets, and less interested in everyday people than in marketing himself and his creations. Sound familiar? Strange soon suffers a trauma which shakes him to his core and forces him to reevaluate all he’s worked for. Add to this a series of quips and tossed out nicknames and even a goatee and Strange quickly becomes a less flashy, less off-putting yet less charming version of Tony Stark. Without even mentioning his name everyone’s favorite C-list comics hero turned A-list movie lead has his influence all over Strange. And his influence isn’t the only one.
It’s impossible to not compare Doctor Strange‘s visual presentation to that of Inception (if we’re going to formally establish a subgenre of architectural sci-fi/fantasy, then I’d like to suggest Dark City for inclusion). Perhaps if it weren’t for Nolan’s moebius strips of unending urban sprawl and gravity-defying stunts than Strange‘s shattered skyscrapers folding over themselves and ominous ceiling walking would feel more original. But we don’t live in that dimension. Instead, the effects, while beautifully rendered and detailed, come off as updated versions of what was done perfectly in the past, including a riff on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even beyond its visual style, Inception‘s influence on Strange comes through by working hard to introduce heady concepts in a way that mainstream audiences will follow and accept. In essence, Strange wants to be strange, but can’t be too strange. It’s weird in the way that Community (one of my all-time favorite television shows) is weird for network TV, while Dan Harmon’s other series Rick and Morty is just plain weird. In other words, it’s never as weird as it thinks it is, reaching peak weirdness with a surprisingly clever ending which also borrows very heavily from another, in my opinion better, mainstream action movie in the recent past (naming it would constitute a spoiler, but it’s obvious). In essence, Strange takes what has been done before, be it by previous Marvel movies or just blockbuster filmmaking in general, and tries to build on it. The result is a solid reinterpretation of other films’ ideas.
Now, I know I’ve spent a lot of time in this review writing about other movies which Doctor Strange either follows or resembles, but casual shots of Avengers Tower, name drops of the team and an amusing post-credits scene basically beg for Doctor Strange to be included in the discussion of the MCU as a whole, thus comparison becomes vital. By this standard, Strange falls on the B-side of the cannon, closer to fellow November release Thor: The Dark World than last year’s Ant-Man. Cumberbatch never bonds with his role of the Sorcerer Supreme as well as Robert Downey Jr. or Marvel’s collection of Chris’s have with theirs. Sadly the focus on the title character means that others aren’t given enough screen time to take shape. Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One comes close, but Rachel McAdams’s Dr. Christine Palmer is basically just there as the love interest who allows the protagonist to demonstrate change. The best of the bunch is Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose Mordo will hopefully become a much bigger part of the next film, assuming there is one, and probably one after that. Between these characters all the standard boxes are checked: quips, banter, jokes, forgettable villain, establishment of a sequel. Yet with little else to focus on logical inconsistencies and questions spring easily to mind: why do the sanctums have doors to other places when all the sorcerers can teleport? How long did Strange train for? Why is ruining his hands so bad when Strange already focuses more on research than surgery? How can anyone spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler? And so forth. Whereas other Marvel films overwhelmed such criticism with character, thought, and fun in varying degrees, Strange doesn’t quite succeed at making us ignore its problems. It’s… good… but it’s not great. The outstanding reason to see Doctor Strange is for the obvious importance it’ll have in future Marvel films. Or if you’re a fan of Benedict