In a year where they can seemingly do no wrong, Marvel Studios is taking a huge gamble on going weird with their adaptation of the spells and sorcery based Doctor Strange. Casting leading man Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role of douchebag doctor turned douchebag Sorcerer Supreme Doctor Strange, the movie dives headfirst into the mystical side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At first glance, the day-glo, psychedelic visual effects have already set the movie apart from anything else in Marvel’s ever growing universe, as they attempt to introduce the uninitiated casual comic fan to the trippy world of their most powerful characters.
However, there are many things that bring Doctor Strange to a screeching halt. Aside from being yet another origin story, the movie is constantly at war with its tone and the usual Marvel tropes don’t exactly save it. It tries to be tongue-in-cheek like Iron Man and mostly fails, hitting the audience with ill-timed jokes that fall flat. It kind of succeeds at being a moody character introduction like Batman Begins until you realize that Cumberbatch isn’t Christian Bale and this story isn’t exactly that good. The only thing Doctor Strange is actually good at is providing a visual spectacle that they only give the audience for a quarter of the run time. The movie is mostly a chore to get through—but that’s not to say it doesn’t do some things right. Check out what it did right, and so very wrong.
What It Got Right
Chiwetel Ejiofor: Chiwetel Ejiofor is far and away the best part of Doctor Strange. Playing the loyal yet equally conflicted Baron Mordo, he elevates the movie past some of its more cheesy elements and writing by giving his all as The Ancient One’s most trusted follower. Some of the more compelling parts of the film surround his reaction to a specific plot point, and even though the movie does not stick the landing in properly showing his reaction within the moment (and not in an end credits scene)—the audience feels the dread at knowing the truth. In a way, I wish that the movie revolved around the possibility of his descent into darkness as he becomes one of Strange’s more formidable foes, as Ejiofor truly deserved to be showcased as more than just a sidekick.
The Visuals: The visuals in Doctor Strange are highly touted as some of the most impressive in any film since Inception, and I’m happy to report that they do not disappoint. Taking inspiration from Nolan’s aforementioned movie, M.C. Escher and a little bit of Jack Kirby weirdness—Strange is an extended acid trip that has to be seen. Even though the wide sweeping action scenes are mostly contained to small sections of New York and London, it’s a delight to see what director Scott Derrickson and his team could cook up visually. A scene that introduces Strange and the audience to the Multiverse is simply one of the best looking, trippiest sections of the year. It’s a rare movie that deserves to be seen in 3D.
Introduces the MCU to a Bold New World: Introducing the MCU’s audience to the mystical world of magic and sorcery is probably less of a hard sell after they’ve seen talking raccoons and gods, but Doctor Strange does manage to bring the world of its protagonist into the big screen in a respectful way. No expense is spared in doing so, and seeing the characters bending their fingers like it’s a YG video to perform spells is something I’d never thought I would see in a movie before. It all works well, and leaves me wanting to see characters like Adam Warlock or Shuma-Gorath given this same treatment in the future.
What It Got Wrong
Awful Plot: Without a doubt, Doctor Strange has one of the worst plots in any Marvel Cinematic Universe movies ever. Following the routine story beats of pretty much every origin film in the canon—Strange starts off slow and plodding, sprinkles visual effects to gloss over its lack of character motivation, and gives us an unearned emotional third act. Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange is unlikeable from the beginning of the movie, and continues to be that way—as he walks through montage after montage of exposition and barely funny jokes and fulfills his “White Savior” role without much resistance. A major death in the third act is rushed over for yet another ominous CGI villain in the sky (think Green Lantern or Fantastic Four: Rise of The Silver Surfer) with a denouement that the writers probably thought was smart but ends up being yet another deus ex machina a la Guardians of The Galaxy, except with a time altering ability. Things happen in this movie with no real ebb or flow, chugging from one clunky scene to another. We’ve seen this before, and you’ll be fooled to think that this movie does it any better, or different. When you take away the visuals, Doctor Strange isn’t just bad—it’s barely a movie.
Ridiculous Use of Women: Rachel McAdams deserved better. I said this walking out of the movie, and at this point, I’m still unsure why she’s even in the film. The role of women in this movie are to bend to Doctor Strange’s will apparently. As her character Christine, his supposed love interest (who barely has 15 minutes of screen time in the movie), she is toyed with and keeps coming back for more. He kicks her out of his life in the first act of the movie, yet she is ready to forgive him at the drop of a dime when he barges back into her life for a favor. It’s a trope so nice, the movie does it twice—as she disappears only to become a plot device to save another character just 45 minutes later in the third act. Considering the strides that Marvel Studios has made to empower their movies with diverse, well-written women protagonists, how could they whiff so badly here? McAdams’ character doesn’t even speak to another woman, or take Dr. Strange to task for being a giant douche. But the audience still gets an unearned sensitive moment between the two, because reasons. Go figure.
Whitewashing: For all of the news surrounding this next point, the whitewashing of The Ancient One actually turned out to be maybe the 15th thing wrong with Doctor Strange. It is problematic nonetheless that this role was given to Tilda Swinton, and not an Asian actor. It speaks volumes to many of the issues that Strange has with not only women, but people of color as well. And for what Swinton is given in the movie, which is practically nothing but spouting exposition and delivering her lines like she’s doped up on Xanax, it’s confusing why they didn’t just cast someone else in the role anyway. Doctor Strange went for established “big names” over sensical casting here, and it doesn’t work.
Weak Villain: This is almost becoming a trope in itself for superhero movies. You’ve heard the story before—charismatic actor lends their talents to antagonist, only to get less screen time, murky motivations, and literally no character development. In this case, Mads Mikkelsen wastes our time as low level chump Kaecilius, who works against The Ancient One to free the big, bad Dormammu from the Dark Dimension. His reasons for doing this are maybe the fourth most important thing in this film, and it only becomes a problem when the plot deems it so. He gets beaten up by Strange, who can barely use his powers, in the second act and gets thoroughly outsmarted in the last act, further proving my point that Baron Mordo was a more fitting villain to focus on in the first movie. Watching Mikkelsen and Cumberbatch slog through the non-CGI hand-to-hand sequences is a bore, and while he gets one of the best quips in the movie (“Mister Doctor”)—he’s ultimately toothless as a main enemy. It’s not Mikkelsen’s fault that the villain sucks, though; he’s an amalgamation of all of the ideas that Doctor Strange throws at its multicolored wall. In introducing so many things, it actually weakens any type of development the main antagonist has. We’ll have to wait until the inevitable sequel to have a villain that we give a damn about, and that sucks.