By Michael Stoll 19 November 2016
Top Line: Doctor Strange offers a fun spectacle of CGI wonder and provides the Marvel Cinematic Universe with another strong entry, but fails to immerse the audience fully in the world of magic. 3/5.
Doctor Strange is the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) following 13 films, 5 television shows, and several billions of dollars in profit. The film was given the grand task of introducing magic and the mystic arts to the MCU, no small feat to be sure, while still being a good movie. So how did it do?
Let’s start with what went right. The acting was terrific throughout the film. Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, and Tilda Swinton all deliver captivating performances, as one might expect from the heroes of Marvel films at this point. There’s no character or actor that does poorly, but these four actors really stood out. The acting was only enhanced by skilled writing and directing, particularly in the case of humor. Doctor Strange utilizes humor very effectively throughout, but it’s not overdone. When a quip or two appear in the film, they’re usually not in moments of high tension (see: Avengers: Age of Ultron). As far as the actual plot and story goes, while the movie is heavy on the spectacle of fight scenes, the conflict is primarily mental in nature. While Stephen Strange progressed as a character, it’s clear that his success is not due to Super Soldier Serum or access to a billion dollar fortune, but uncanny skill and dedication. The climax of the film reflects this in possibly the most interesting “boss fight” that Marvel has had yet.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the movie (to no real surprise to anyone) is the CGI. It is gorgeous. This is one those rare films that feels like it was made to be filmed in 3D. Scott Derrickson really takes advantage of the mind-bending reality-altering Escher-esque madness that is Doctor Strange and puts special effects to good work. Even a scene as simple as a lightning bolt slowing down so much that it can be seen slowly streaking across the sky impressed me, not just because it exists but because of how well these effects entwine with the narrative. The only moments where the special effects falter are when different characters jump from building to building in the citybending sequences, where it’s painfully obvious that we aren’t looking at actual people. For the rest, though, even if I knew in my heart that the movie was primarily CGI, I’ll be damned if it didn’t look real.
So, what’s the issue, then? What went wrong? Well, as cliche as it is to say it, the villain of a Marvel film isn’t particularly fleshed out. Kaecilius, played by Mads Mikkelson, fights against the “good magicians” for the good of all people, as he sees it, and provides a mental match for Strange. This was all revealed in one scene and never revisited in any meaningful way. We never get to really see their ideologies clash again, as the conflict then shifts away. Likewise, while Rachel McAdams’s Dr. Palmer and Strange have terrific chemistry when on screen together, they are rarely on screen together. It made me wish there was more of the two of them instead of more Strange and Mordo back-and-forth.
My biggest grievance with Doctor Strange comes from the magical world itself, however. We are first introduced to the magical realm through an insane cluster of mind-blowing imagery, depicting all the wonders and mayhem of magic. A few training montage scenes later, and the magical realm is mostly tame through the rest of the film. We don’t have the chaos that greets us early in the film. We never see anyone truly lose control of these supposedly uncontainable entities. Magic, in the end, doesn’t really feel like another dimension to get lost in, but another frontier that’s already been tamed. The spectacle of the all-encompassing mystery of the magical realms is totally passed over. As a result, the movie just isn’t as exciting as it could be. Despite constant warnings of the consequence of forbidden magic, we’re never really given any reason to believe that such magic shouldn’t be used. It’s just another tool, like a super hammer or spider-webbing.
Bottom Line: I give Doctor Strange a 3/5. The acting, humor, and conflict are all utilized in a way that invested me until the very end. The CGI in particular was terrific. However, the actual world of magic was disappointingly regular, lacking the chaos and unpredictability that would have made immersing myself into the world more fun. Also, some of the supporting characters were underused, particularly the main villain, adding to the trend of lackluster villains in MCU films.