We all just need to come to terms with the fact that Marvel Studios knows what they are doing. They make entertaining movies. They have pioneered a new form of long form storytelling (the interconnected “cinematic universe). Sure, maybe some of the offerings are a little over stuffed and a little too conventional, but come on, these movies are a great time at the theater! Doctor Strange is another great entry into the behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it feels good to see a studio at the top of their game.
Directed by Scott Derrickson and written by Jon Spaihts and Robert C. Cargile, Doctor Strange is a wonderful adaptation of Steve Ditko’s psychedelic hero. The film walks the line of being a by-the-numbers superhero origin story while also being a balls-to-the-wall “oh my gosh what is happening” trippy experience that lives up to the titular adjective of STRANGE. Though I’m not too familiar with the character, I’m aware that the story of Doctor Strange is out there, and was probably thought to be too obscure or weird to ever be a successful film. I’m happy to say this thing is great.
To be clear, the structure of Doctor Strange is as bland as they come. Protagonist with an attitude problem whose problem pushes them to rock bottom? Check. A journey to a new world while also discovering your true self? You got it. An antagonist who, while pretty cool, is just a mirror image of our hero? Yep. A series of side-characters who are pretty well fleshed out and deserve their own spin-off? Yes (this is a huge positive in Doctor Strange)! A star (sometimes even Oscar-nominated) actress filling in for the underdeveloped love interest whose only purpose is to show you how awesome the hero is? Yeah that’s here too (this is a huge negative for Doctor Strange).
So while it may be true that Doctor Strange’s narrative structure is as Marvel as it gets, the characters and adventure that fill that structure are some of the best in recent blockbuster memory. Just looking at the big four – Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and the surprise of Wong (Benedict Wong) – we have a great mix of wit and soul on display here. Everyone is giving a good performance, and these characters not only get their moment to shine, but each of them gets a good arc by the time the credits role.
There are two main aspects I want to focus in on as we close this out. First, I applaud Kevin Feige and everyone at Marvel for staying committed to the inherent spirituality that comes when adapting something like Doctor Strange. While Thor opted for the “magic is just science we don’t understand yet” frame of reference, Doctor Strange just goes full on “EFF IT! THIS IS MAGIC AND SOUL PUNCHING AND THE ASTRAL PLANE AND THE SPIRIT REALM WOOHOO!” Director Scott Derrickson comes to this film with a religious background, and it pays off seeing a character as mystical as Strange being adapted by a person of faith.
The second aspect we have to applaud…no, the aspect we need to bow down in worship are the visual effects. To be clear, it is not that this film has great effects in the same sense of Lord of the Rings or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Doctor Strange’s amazing visual effects need to be praised because, for the first time in a long time, we are seeing true creativity on the big screen. Whether it be the kaleidoscope inspired powers of these sorcerers or an action scene that takes place in an ever deconstructing New York City, we have never seen anything like what we are seeing in Doctor Strange.
Doctor Strange is a real delight, it has maybe 2-3 scenes that play into the larger cinematic universe, meaning it really exists on its own. This feels like the first Iron Man or Thor films. It is a nice, self-contained origin movie with a likable cast and some good action. So while the film may be going through the motions, it is upside down, listening to Jimi Hendrix and committed to its truly out-there roots while it does so.
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