Fourteen movies in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe shows no signs of slowing down. The latest movie, ‘Doctor Strange,’ has just had an opening weekend in the US of $85 million. Not bad for a film about a superhero few people know about. As we all know, success is not a guarantor of quality. I watched ‘Doctor Strange’ when it opened here in olde England. It’s taken me a week or so to pin down my thoughts about it. Is it a quirky adventure that sets itself apart from the wider MCU? Or is it the generic MCU origin story with magic and eye-popping effects?
If you’ve watched ‘Iron Man,’ you’ll know the basic plot of ‘Doctor Strange.’ Arrogant genius almost dies after an incident. Recovery from that incident turns him into a reluctant superhero. Tony Stark creates an Iron Man suit to escape from terrorists. Stephen Strange travels to Kamar-Taj, learns magic, and ends up saving the world. Strange can’t quip as well as Stark (humour is definitely not his strong point), and he’s a neurosurgeon rather than a genius-playboy-billionaire-philanthropist, but at their very basics the two characters are similar.
And that’s my first criticism of the film. After an opening scene that teases the mind-blowing visuals we’ll see later on, the film quickly becomes a typical MCU origin story. It’s just another ‘Iron Man’ or ‘Captain America’ with magic Inception-inspired visuals. There’s little surprising from a narrative point of view about the film. In fact, when Strange starts to learn about magic, he goes from being awful at conjuring magic to being great at it (after being abandoned in the Himalayas). Rather than a fleshed-out origin story, ‘Doctor Strange’ sometimes become a summary of an origin story. Strange’s period of magic-learning is undefined. Was he there for a month? A year? Two years? He says he has a photographic memory, but why the sudden change from being a magic amateur to a magician extraordinaire? Also, why do the magicians learn martial arts? Harry Potter never had to learn karate or kung-fu.
To compare Stark and Strange again: Stark was a likeable egotist, whose charm outshone his arrogance. That was mainly thanks to Robert Downey Jr.’s performance. Up to now, Marvel have rarely gone wrong with casting their superheroes. However, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, it’s not difficult to imagine someone else filling his shoes. I’m not sure if that’s a problem with the writing or with Cumberbatch’s performance. All he needed to do was channel Sherlock and put on an American accent. The latter’s decent, but I never warmed to Strange. He wasn’t funny (was that part of the bigger joke?) and lacked charisma. Cumberbatch sure looked the part, but I didn’t think he became the part.
“Have you seen that in a gift shop?”
I’ve spent long enough criticising the film, but hold on! I didn’t dislike ‘Doctor Strange’ at all. My enjoyment primarily arose from the awesome special effects. I often complain that CGI is used to paper over a weak story or plot, and that’s true here. The visuals are what set ‘Doctor Strange’ apart from any other MCU origin story. The opening scene is just a taster of what’s to come. Up until The Ancient One pushed Strange through a horde of dimensions, the film plodded along. However, when Strange fell through several dimensions, my eyes wept with the glory and beauty of what they were seeing! Of course, it was reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey (and the similar Ant-Man scene about the microverse), but as the scene progressed and progressed, it became so much more than that. My particular favourite dimension was the one full of hands…It’s a psychedelic treat.
But the eye candy only increased with the environment-changing powers of the magicians. They gave fight scenes a new power to thrill (even though I’m still questioning why magicians need to learn martials arts. Can’t they simply use magic in a battle? But superhero films have to have fight scenes, don’t they?). Yes, it was reminiscent of Inception, but the film soon overcame those similarities. To see the film on Imax 3D was something very special! Seeing buildings fold in on themselves, cities split in half (and then half again), geometric shapes swirl about the scene…it makes any previous MCU use of CGI look tame by comparison. We’ve had enough of CGI destruction and ‘Doctor Strange’ presented us with something different.
One of the other highlights of the film was the third act twist in the narrative. It’s atypical of the MCU last act, which normally includes city-wide destruction and an epic showdown between superhero and supervillain. Of course, the main bad guy in ‘Doctor Strange’ is forgettable, but that’s par for the course with the MCU. I can’t muster the strength to complain about that. But the last act is the biggest (and most pleasant) surprise in the film.
‘Doctor Strange’ treads much the same path as many other MCU origin stories. Apart from the last act, there are no surprises in the plot. It lacks a convincing protagonist with the miscasting of Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange. He lacks the likeability of, say, Captain American, or the charisma of Iron Man. I could easily imagine someone as playing Strange. However, the visuals are worth the admission price. See it at Imax 3D if you can. Drink it in, baby! From a psychedelic trip to cities folding in upon themselves to time rewinding in real time, the visuals are mind-blowing.
VERDICT: 7/10. If it wasn’t for the magical visual effects, ‘Doctor Strange would be just another MCU origin story that’s half as fun as the others. But the visuals are the main reason for watching this film. Watch it on the biggest screen possible.
What did you think of ‘Doctor Strange’? Leave your comments below!
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