Doctor Strange feels like the movie that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been waiting for. Outside of the ongoing tantric endurance from the reveal of the trio of filmic phases that will culminate in the 2018 and 2019 Avengers: Infinity Wars movies, it’s a refreshing breeze of what made this grand experiment so interesting to begin with while managing to capture what makes the original character and comics intriguing. Oh, it also looks damn good doing it.
All of its accomplishments are almost in spite of it existing within the MCU and under the pervasively (and invasively?) guiding hand of Kevin Feige, the reigning impresario of Marvel Studios. Its structure is hilariously abiding—almost religiously so—to the tired three-act MCU format where you meet the everyday man and then he becomes the hero in the midst of a trio of spectacle action sequences. But in the middle of traversing this worn-in rut, Doctor Strange manages to be original, engaging, and altogether satisfying, perhaps and hopefully reminding Marvel why we like comics in the first place.
Speaking of the source, Doctor Strange skews extraordinarily close to the original. Here, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an exceptional—near legendary—neurosurgeon finds him upended in a bay after another car threw him from the road. (PSA: don’t text a drive.) This leaves him without the use of the sole tools he requires to maintain his lifestyle and, more importantly, his ego as his hands are crushed and rendered damaged nearly beyond repair.
Without the full and deft use of his phalanges, Strange is left to scour the planet for a remedy until he finds one deep in Kathmandu with a place called Kamar-Taj. This is where he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and one of her disciples Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), both of whom pretty much shove the revelation that there is an infinite multiverse out there with a similarly endless source of mystical and unknown powers and threats. As you can imagine, his reaction is, well, averse.
In these moments, the film shines, despite mirroring the Iron Man origins of Tony Stark. It really sits and steeps in this setup, letting Strange’s journey feel as necessary to you as it does to the character. His panache and charm betray a man built on a nigh deadly hubris, much of which is given up through his interactions with other people. The nice and deliberate exposure of his relationship with fellow doctor and one-time lover Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) does wonders for this meditative portion of the story, though she as a character is rather lackluster.
Once Strange is aboard the psychedelic express, it barrels forward into rapid progression. It reaches the point of absurdity, if playing on inevitably based on Strange’s incredible intelligence and sensitivity to the mystic arts. He more or less jumps from being nonbeliever to a master-level practitioner in just a few short scenes, even scraping together enough combat skills to outlast more veteran fighters in a particularly crippling attack on Kamar-Taj.
It feels, at best, haphazard, which is far better than the alternative in being disingenuous. The time spent in the second act doesn’t really do much to further either of the conspiracies that mostly land and resolve in a matter of moments at the end, nor does the eventual turn of the one other character meant to propel this subfranchise do anything beyond…exist. The middle meat of the film oddly only serves to precede the third act with its own litany of setup.
The second act, however, does do a great job at playing with Strange in this new world and explaining the rules of it, even in the midst of a few rather exciting action scenes. It even toys with the eventual and iconic construction of the full-blown Doctor Strange, replete with both cloak and amulet. If you can stand going through the narrative motions, there’s a good amount of fun to be had here.
In this setup with Strange and friends fighting against something that threatens existence rather than many person’s individual existences, the story also does what the comic has always done well. It lives within a world that we feel like we know but it plays on a higher realm. It deals with a story that has an existential demand about it rather than the general world-ending drama of the other silver screen MCU entries.
It also has a great time with the sheer potential of a world full of sorcerers. Case in point: the nutso visuals. It doesn’t turn simple bends of the world into mind-numbing displays like Inception, but it does grip your perspective tightly on all sides and just rip into it. Worlds fold in on themselves, whole universes emerging and exploding out of swirls of dust. It’s like a menagerie of DeviantArt fetishes, but in the best way possible.
While these grand spectacles are beautifully and coherently constructed, there is an immense struggle, however, to keep closer, more intimate action fully digestible. It casually smashes together cuts of action, jumping between jabs and hits, sometimes indecipherably and other times ineffectively. The film is just generally more interesting and comprehensible the further the camera pulls back.
That’s especially true when the character interactions start to drum up. Either they’re dumping exposition like primary antagonist Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) or slogging through some poorly constructed, hit-or-miss jokes. The only real character is Strange, showing a full and mostly deserved arc, albeit one we’ve seen before in Tony Stark.
They still work, however, because of the acting power behind the roles. Mikkelsen is potent enough to make you confess all your sins if he ever sees you in real life, and Swinton is somehow both self-effacing and staggeringly confident without ever having to say so, though when she does talk, you can feel a palpable urgency in her delivery. And McAdams, while doing her best with so little, at least totally fulfills all of her character requirements in any given scene, whether it be verbal sparring partner, reluctant friend, or an emerging awareness to Strange’s brave new world.
Then there’s Cumberbatch, who does seem to wholly embody the necessary components of Strange as a character. He’s straightforward yet mysteriously intriguing, floating on a cloud of bravado through all of his life’s encounters. And, while there’s no evidence for this, I do believe more of Strange’s comedic moments would have landed with better writing as Cumberbatch mustered up all the requisite charm and amenability for what he was provided. (His American accent, however, was, uh, meandering.)
Maybe that’s all the movie needed to succeed because despite its many, many problems, it still works. It plays with the premise in wonderful and mind-bending ways, shocking your brain with an overwhelming number of surreal visuals and concepts. And it delivers it all to you through a collection of terrific actors, many of which stand far taller than their material would otherwise allow them to.
In spite of this and its imperceptible but greatly appreciated sense of originality in a conceptually stale cinematic universe, you do have to wallow through some rough narrative. It’s far from a deal-breaker, but it is problematic for the majority of this 115-minute movie. The MCU has done worse, but it’s also done a lot better. (At the very least, however, it sets up the incredible and full breadth of the MCU. The two credit stingers will perhaps get you the most jacked you’ll be in the entire film.)
Final Score: 8 out of 10