Whenever I find myself writing reviews about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, sometimes I do feel like a broken record. Forgive me, it’s not on purpose. I do enjoy these films. Marvel are in unprecedented territory given how connected each film is. Doctor Strange is the fourteenth Marvel film in their collection. However, despite the great visuals and a trippy storyline, I left the cinema not with the greatest enthusiasm.
“You’re a man looking at the world through a keyhole. You’ve spent your life trying to widen it. Your work saved the lives of thousands. What if I told you that reality is one of many?” – The Ancient One
Maybe I’m being too harsh or overly critical because there’s some positives to take out of Doctor Strange.
First and foremost, it’s not bogged down by other Marvel films. Doctor Strange is a self-contained adventure. Because there are no distractions from cameos or obvious attempts to shoehorn the next film in the franchise, it doesn’t take away from the narrative. In reality, you could watch this film in confidence without too much knowledge or background of the previous Marvel films or even Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) himself. Everything was subtly done.
Secondly, at times it didn’t feel like your typical Marvel film. Because the film deals with sorcery and magic, you could probably argue this is Marvel’s attempt at Harry Potter! But having said that, there are elements in Doctor Strange which are refreshing. The magic, the multiverse and the hand gesturing (known as ‘finger-tutting’) is a change from the norm. It’s mastering the arts of magic instead of The Avengers using brute force to handle an enemy for example. Doctor Strange will feel like a game changer.
Last but not least, it’s the balance between science vs. faith-based mysticism. Doctor Stephen Strange is a highly educated neurosurgeon. He considers himself to be one of the best doctors in the world, has won countless awards and lives a materialistic lifestyle. His ego is his driving force. In one scene he removes a bullet from the brain of a patient. He does the procedure with an arrogant confidence, almost breaking the rules of medicine by taking a risk. Does he see himself as a God in that kind of way? The film subtly suggests so. In his world of science, nothing is beyond his power. He can choose at his will what case to embark on, just for the notoriety. Because all he cares about is himself, his wealth and his career.
All that comes crashing down when he’s involved in a car accident. The severe nerve damage in his hands as a result from it prevents him from operating again. Exhausting every medical procedure known to science, he begins on a journey to find a cure which leads him to The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).
There’s almost a Star Wars analogy to be made with Doctor Strange. Swinton’s The Ancient One operates like Yoda/Obi-Wan – wise, philosophical and knowledgeable about the gifts of the mystic arts. She’s the complete opposite from Strange’s egotistical behaviour. There is a reassurance and a guidance to her practices, even when logic doesn’t seem to explain or occur naturally. There is a reason for everything and any task Strange is put through is all a test. It’s designed not to make sense and Strange becomes a Jedi in training (It’s sorcerer in training but you get the picture). There is of course a battle of good vs evil – an apprentice, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) choosing the dark side after falling out with his former teacher.
Whenever The Ancient One and Stephen Strange are on-screen together, it’s always the constant battle of their rationales. Every bit of dialogue from The Ancient One is an encouragement to Strange to see beyond his selfish nature. If he wants his hands to regain its normal function, then he has to let go of what he thinks he knows. There is a bigger picture out there that only his limited imagination refuses to see. But the film also examines how much of that faith can be perceived as being blind. Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) for example wilfully accepts everything around the sanctum and never really questions the motivation or the practices like Stephen Strange does. If you’re familiar with the history of Doctor Strange, you know how that turns out.
In handling this balance, this is where the film exceeds. Tilda Swinton is often hypnotic, always drawing you into the moment. In fact I would say she is the best thing in Doctor Strange. Drawing on his real life experience of spending time at a Buddhist monastery as a teacher during a gap year, Cumberbatch handling spiritualism doesn’t seem like a stretch on the imagination. He adapts to the overall premise very quickly and allows him to showcase his talent.
Despite all that – why the indifference?
“I don’t know what my future holds. But I can’t go back.” – Doctor Stephen Strange
The problem with Doctor Strange comes down to the narrative. As this is an origin story, it does take a while to get going. It’s again a ‘paint by the numbers’ and formulaic storyline. Yes it’s a different feel for a Marvel film but it doesn’t break away from the mould nor does it feel challenging. It hinders the film from reaching its maximum potential.
The humour for example didn’t feel natural. In fact it felt forced and at times awkward. Strange comes off as another version of Tony Stark but with less impact. If the film played it straight given the subject matter, the uniqueness of this world would have been solidified.
Lastly, Marvel and their one-dimensional villains is still a problem. Taking over the world and showing destruction doesn’t cut it any more. There is an obvious and tragic back story involving Kaecilius. His motivation for turning to the dark arts is there but is never really explored in great detail. Did he want that power to change his past? Sadly it’s not mentioned. The film doesn’t take that time to investigate due to the fast paced nature of the film. It’s a shame when you have a brilliant actor like Mads Mikkelsen not being able to delve into the character’s psychology.
The visual effects are amazing, clearly inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Inception. A part of me wished I saw this at an IMAX screening. However no amount of beautiful visual effects can distract you from the narrative. The narrative has always got to be the strong foundation and had it been tighter it would have resulted in a very strong Marvel film. It would have been up there with the best such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Iron Man.
Whilst I did like Doctor Strange and I certainly had fun with it, it wasn’t as spectacular as it should have been. It’s a solid three star film. It had the right elements but it didn’t quite come together in its execution.