With 14 films and counting, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) now has more movies than the Star Trek franchise—and it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Doctor Strange, the latest chapter in what may be the longest story ever told in cinema, introduces yet another hero to the MCU’s ever growing pantheon and proves there are realms of comic lore yet unexplored. And despite its prolificacy, Marvel hasn’t produced any bad films, though the same cannot be said of other long-running franchises (cough-Star Trek-cough). Doctor Strange is no exception, proving a worthy addition to the MCU.
We first meet the film’s protagonist, Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) simultaneously showing off his surgical skills and his photographic memory as he performs brain surgery while stating the name, year, and track number of the jazz songs a colleague is playing on a Mac. Though he revels in the awe others show at his medical prowess, he responds coldly when the parent of the patient he just saved attempts to hug him. After work he retires to his gaudy, spacious downtown Manhattan flat, replete with a view of the city skyline. There, he mulls over his absurd watch collection; each probably costs more than my parents’ cars. Later in the evening he goes for a drive in his black Lamborghini Huracán. Distracted while looking at medical documents sent to him by his assistant, he rockets off the road in a brutal car accident that permanently damages the nerves in his hands. No longer able to perform surgery, he spends much of his fortune searching for a medical procedure to heal his hands, seemingly futilely. When nearly all hope is lost, Strange hears of a man who made a miraculous recovery from neural damage. This man tells him to seek out Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu. Desperate, Strange spends the last of his savings to travel there. When he arrives, he finds a group of sorcerers who defend the Earth against mystical threats. Hoping magic will cure his condition, he resolves to learn their mystic arts.
The overall plot of the film is pretty predictable. Indeed, in broad strokes it is pretty similar to other Marvel origin movies like Thor and Iron Man: young, powerful, arrogant, rich man is brought low and as a result realizes it’s not all about him, becoming a hero and at least a slightly more humble person. Stephen Strange and Tony Stark even have similar facial hair. With the exception of an after credit-scene that might surprise viewers unfamiliar with the comics, there aren’t really any plot twists. Despite the fantastical nature of the film, I wasn’t really astonished by anything that happened.
Due in part to the standard plot, the most stunning part of the film are the effects, which shine throughout the film, particularly in the action sequences. From the astral projection, to the magical energy weapons, to the kaleidoscope-like warping of the space around the characters, Doctor Strange makes magic seem as real as anything can be in Marvel movies. Some action sequences feel less like superhero fight scenes and more like works of art. This is one of the few films I recommend seeing in IMAX 3D.
The visual effects are so good they are often more intriguing that what’s actually happening. Partially to blame for this is the films underwhelming villain, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). From a franchise that’s brought us villains as complex, deceitful, and empathetic as Loki, Kaecilius is a bit of a let down. His main motivation seems to be a fear of death. Come on Marvel. You have to be more creative than that. He doesn’t have any real connection to Strange, so their interactions feel far more superficial than those we’ve seen between Thor and Loki or Captain America and the Winter Soldier.
But while the villain was disappointing, Cumberbatch was not. In fact, I’ve yet to see a role Cumberbatch hasn’t pulled off masterfully. Though the role of the egotistical genius who doesn’t like hugs isn’t new to Cumberbatch, given his roles in Sherlock and The Imitation Game, he proves equally capable of playing the depressed post-car crash Strange sporting the beard of a homeless man and struggling to find new meaning in life.
Cumberbatch also contributes to another highlight of the film: humor. Marvel generally does a great job of weaving comedy throughout their movies, and Doctor Strange is no exception. Some of the most memorable are the interactions between Doctor Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong,). Wong is essentially the librarian of Kamar-Taj and possesses an exceptionally solemn demeanor. Strange’s futile attempts to get Wong to laugh throughout the film result in several amusing scenes.
However, there is more to the film than great visual effects and a few good jokes. In some ways, Doctor Strange is about death. Unable to accept death, the villain is motivated by his desire for immortality, a quest which ultimately results in a fate worse than the one he feared. As The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), an Obi-Wan like figure who serves as Strange’s teacher, says “Death is what gives life meaning. To know your days are numbered and your time is short.” It is also a movie about inner demons. In another one of her moments of wisdom, The Ancient One tells Strange “We never lose our demons, we only learn to live above them.” The villain fails to confront his demons and is consumed by them. Though Strange does not fully overcome his arrogance and can’t stop his hands from shaking, he learns to deal with his faults and move on with his life, finding a new purpose beyond the one he initially envisioned for himself.
Unlike other Marvel movies, Civil War, for example, that require familiarity with what happened in 20+ hours of previous Marvel films, Doctor Strange is just as fun for the MCU enthusiast as the newbie. Since this is an origin movie, it makes minimal references to previous events in the MCU. Other than the Avengers Tower in the Manhattan skyline, the traditional Stan Lee cameo, and an end-credit scene with a member of the Avengers, there really isn’t anything in Doctor Strange that someone with absolutely no previous knowledge of Marvel wouldn’t appreciate. So if you want to spend an evening laughing, seeing killer visual effects, and staring at Benedict Cumberbatch, Doctor Strange is your movie.
How bad could a Marvel movie with Benedict Cumberbatch be?