[Spoiler-infested waters. Swim at your own risk.]
Doctor Strange is definitely not a household name, and many probably learned of his existence because of this film. The character’s relatively low popularity makes the fact that Marvel Studios is taking a risk by releasing this movie an undeniable one. Nonetheless, previous entries like Ant-Man (2015) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) turned out to be surprisingly good movies. This goes to show that even the little guys deserve a chance to shine, as sometimes they can shine even brighter than the big guys. Still, does everyone deserve a chance?
Doctor Strange is the story of the eponymous neurosurgeon-turned-superhero Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Strange is an arrogant doctor with a superiority complex arising from being too good at what he does (basically Sherlock, M.D.). Strange treats everyone he meets with absolute irreverence except for Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), a former lover that works at the same hospital.
Initially, she is also the only thing that humanizes him during the first act of the movie. It is during this time that Strange has a horrible car accident that cripples his hands and makes it extremely difficult for him to do the most mundane tasks – let alone neurosurgery. Looking for a way to treat his irreparable injuries, he ventures to the Himalayan Mountains to look for Kamar-Taj, supposedly the only place where he will find healing for his hands and bring back meaning to his life…Which it does, just not in the way he expected.
Kamar-Taj turns out to be a temple home to a group of Tibetan monks who specialize in magic. Seeing it as the only way to mend his wounds, Strange begs the cult’s leader, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), to teach him their ways. Alongside her, Strange’s training is complemented by Master Karl Mordo’s (Chiwetel Eijofor) martial arts and Wong (Benedict Wong), the temple’s librarian. Not long after his arrival to the Temple, Strange learns of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a rogue sorcerer with a world-threatening plan that happens to be the main antagonist.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange is an arrogant joker similar to Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark. During the first act of the movie, Cumberbatch does make an excellent job at channeling a character whose arrogance is bound to piss us off while at the same time showing enough charm for us to be empathic. Throughout the movie, we see Strange trying to become a decent person and end up actually rooting for him. However, even if he has his charming moments, it seems that Marvel Studios thinks that for a protagonist to be likable he needs some sass, resulting in forced one-liners that, for the most part, serve more as an annoyance than as actual comic relief.
The supporting cast happens to be largely uninteresting and a distraction from the movie’s character-centric approach. Even if Rachel McAdams did an excellent job portraying Doctor Strange’s love interest, Christine Palmer ironically is no more than a one-dimensional character in a movie about multiple dimensions. She fulfills her role of giving Strange an emotional side but is for the most part “just there”, to the point we can almost forget about her.
Mordo is relevant simply because of his fighting proficiency and his expositional dumps, but he has no real chemistry with Strange and is hardly ever worthy of any particular interest. Wong shares most of Mordo’s flaws with the added detriment of being the target of Strange’s one-liners.
The major disappointment in the movie comes in the form of film’s main antagonist, Kaecillius. Despite a very promising initial showing, he ends up being one of the less interesting and relatively underpowered villains I have seen in a Marvel film. Even if Kaecillius is actually given decent motivation to be the bad guy, his shallow characterization never made me care for him or believe he was anything more than evil for the sake of it.
Additionally, Doctor Strange never seems to really struggle fighting him, even if he is still a fledgling wizard whereas Kaecillius is supposed to be one of the world’s most powerful sorcerers. The result is a villain who is more deserving of a 20-minute episode of an average superhero TV show rather than being the focus of a 120-minute feature film.
The only outlier in the cast of uninteresting supporting characters is the Ancient One, who is actually complex and gouged my interest throughout the movie. Unsurprisingly, she was the center of some of the movie’s best scenes.
In my opinion, one of the film’s major problems is how generic its storyline is. I understand that, like many other first entries of character-centric movies, it is no more than an origin story. I expected the usual tragic backstory, I expected the usual training montage, I expected the usual rise, I expected the usual conclusion, and I expected the usual everything. Even if there is absolutely nothing wrong with a story following a certain structure that does not mean said story should fall into predictability. This made it even more apparent that most of the characters were nothing but clichéd tropes.
Although I did not like the structure, I believe that the last 30 minutes of the movie helped it redeem itself. Not only did it have some great scenes but it also had a wonderful resolution. Marvel Studios somehow managed to give the film the huge scope of planetary salvation to a superhero that obviously cannot yet control his powers and make it work.
Even if Doctor Strange is still learning, we never feel he is aided by any Deus Ex Machina or plot armor that made his victories possible, but by the combination of his grand intellect and growing magical abilities. Nonetheless, even if it was a character-centric movie, it did disappoint me that of the many disciples the temple had, it seemed only the named characters came to Strange’s aid during this world-threatening onslaught, making the experience less believable to me.
If I could pinpoint what I thought was undoubtedly the movie’s biggest virtue, I would not think twice to mention the special effects. Doctor Strange’s visuals are not only good because of the huge amount of effort put into making them believable, but also because of how original they are. The dimension shattering trips Doctor Strange exposes us are a visual delight that would, by themselves, have made this a good movie. Every frame of the film can be easily identifiable because of how stylish it is, making it extremely satisfying whenever we see a magic circle, a sorcerer bending the landscape, or another dimension.
Ultimately, Doctor Strange is not close to being the best Marvel movie yet. It has its many flaws in the form of its narrative and characters, but it certainly does make for some good entertainment. I had very high expectations for this film and it did not get to reach all of them. However, I can say with certainty that even if this film could have benefited from better writing, I am glad Marvel Studios gave Doctor Stephen Strange a chance.