The long awaited Doctor Strange (2016) was greeted by an overwhelming $86 million overseas during its opening weekend alone; making this yet another sure fire success for the suits over at Walt Disney Studios.
Doctor Stephen Vincent Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an egotistical neurosurgeon who also happens to be extraordinarily brilliant at his profession. Strange’s good fortune soon ends, however, after the esteem surgeon falls victim to a car accident limiting the use of his hands. In an attempt to uncover a miracle cure for his injuries, Strange travels to Kamar-Taj, where he’s taken in by a sorcerer under the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). It’s here where Strange learns to harness the powers that allow him to become the superhuman alchemist Doctor Strange.
As a whole, the film is strong in terms of its quality. There’s many positives regarding this particular addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nevertheless, also falls short in a number of areas. For one thing, Doctor Strange finds itself victim to an all too common problem in first-time superhero movies, in the sense that it feels the need to dish out an origin story introducing the hero to its audience. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – and for that matter is something of a necessity considering it’s the first time Stephen Strange has appeared onscreen in this universe – the film still finds itself dragging its heels during the first half as a result. Although the film opens relatively strong, the fact the plot needs to establish the character of Strange, get him into the ill fated car accident and have him venture to the Eastern corners of the globe to become the alchemical superhuman he’s destined to become, there’s an awful lot of strain on a large portion of the movie’s runtime. Despite this “issue” not exactly being a fault of the film itself, it’s not as well executed as it has been in the past. It’s a perfectly competent genesis story, however in a world where Batman Begins and Iron Man exist, you’d struggle to call it a masterclass in introductions. Considering this is a movie in which our lead protagonist is thrust into an alien and visually magnificent reality, it’s a shame it didn’t turn out to be more captivating than it could have otherwise been.
Another area in which the film fails to live up is in how daring it decides to be with its narrative. The story of Stephen Strange is inherently a surreal and “out there” feature. A film which transcends the standard pseudo-science approach which many of these sorts of films often don. Here is a chance to tell a bizarre and alien tale from a fantastical and experimental angle. The Marvel Cinematic universe is now so self-sustaining that Disney can very well afford to push the boat out once every few year; making something not fitting the usual mould. They kind of did this with Guardian’s of the Galaxy (2014) – adapting a relatively obscure comic book into a quirky blockbuster – which is something they could have easily done here. If it flopped, at least there’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 coming out next year to heal the wounds. If it succeeds, you’ve got another classic on your hands. Win win.
Sadly, in terms of its screenplay, they elected to play it safe. What we essentially get is an origin story that decides to tick all the boxes and not venture outside its comfort zone. It would seem that director/writer Scott Derrickson and the gang at Disney didn’t want to risk alienating audiences too much, as the film tightly sticks to an established status quo. You have a sturdy beginning, middle, end structure; a “mustache twirling” villain to give our hero someone to punch; a comic relief character to provide some giggles; a love interest to tug a some heartstrings; a globe-smashing threat to give the plot a deadline and enough exposition to keep audiences clued up from start to finish. When Ant Man (2015) did this last year, it resulted in one of the more unimaginative instalments to the MCU. Here however, we can give the conventional approach the benefit of the doubt, as everything else going on within Doctor Strange is top bananas. Regardless of the narrative’s traditional approach, the film is well made and manages to be visually unoriginal, despite some of its narrative failings.
The film looks stunning on every level. The mind-bending optics allow it to do something completely unique in terms of how the action plays out. Instead of generic car chases and shootouts, we have warping buildings, twisting streets, twirling rooms and maze-like hallways defying the laws of physics in endless ways. The space the action plays out within is spectacular. The visual effects team have gone all out; delivering something on par with a Christopher Nolan blockbuster. It really is a delicious and astonishing rollercoaster, showcasing just how breathtaking action-driven multimillion-dollar flicks can be when done properly.
Cumberbatch also delivers a solid performance. His attempt at an American accent isn’t what one may call brilliant, plus there are moments in which it’s apparent he’s been studying the rulebook on how to be Tony Stark. Aside from this, it’s of little surprise he was a fan favorite to play Stephen Strange for so long. His casting makes sense, and Cumberbatch manages to portray the whole egotistical attitude in a manner that doesn’t grow too unlikable or alienating. As was made evident in his breakout role on Sherlock (2010-2017), he’s always had a talent at playing a bit of an asshole without you wanting to throw a chair at the screen. This isn’t actually meant to be an insult, by the way. I like Cumberbatch, I think he’s a terrific performer. Making flawed people likeable is a tough act to crack. I’m saying he succeeds, that’s all.
Whereas the script may fail to venture down storytelling avenues never before explored, Doctor Strange is one heck of a visual feast. If you’re looking for a superhero flick which delivers a narrative different from all which came before, you’re out of luck. If you’re out for an ocular thrill, this is likely to be a film for you. A flawed-yet-solid piece to the ever-expanding MCU jigsaw.
After a summer of disappointing blockbusters, it’s nice to see an entertaining one return to the silver screen, no matter how conventional its script may be at times.