Two years ago, I watched and wrote about every single film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’ve made so many more of them since then! So, now I’m watching all of the newer ones before Endgame gets here. Next up: Doctor Strange.
When it comes to Doctor Strange, let’s get what doesn’t entirely work out of the way first. Some of the issue lies with the titular character, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose name had to have caused more than an askance glance in medical school. He’s basically Tony Stark pre-capture without Robert Downey Jr.’s fast-talking charm. He’s arrogant and self-involved, seemingly living only to point out how much better he is than everyone else, but he’s cold and aloof where Stark is giddy and energetic. It’s no contest which pre-hero individual would be more fun at a party. He’s practically medical Sherlock – which I know already happened since I still remember House – which is what made Cumberbatch a logical casting choice.
Cumberbatch is a strong, charismatic actor, but his natural affability can’t quite overcome how unbearably unpleasant Stephen Strange is before his accident.
He’s also saddled with a flat American accent that does him no favors. Strange enjoys playing God because it brings him adulation, not because he has any regard for others, so it’s hard to feel much sympathy towards him when he loses everything. He fares better once he’s been both brought back down to Earth then relaunched into a 4th dimension stratosphere. Cumberbatch is one of those actors who exudes competence but also slightly undercuts with a certain mischievous twinkle in the corner of his eyes. He seems to be toying as much as he’s analyzing, and that mixture of cockiness and ludicrousness serve both the character and the film well.
In addition, the superhero origin story beats are all pretty familiar here. Stephen Strange is a surgeon who has the world on a string until an accident that cripples his hands. Putting aside medical science for something more mystical, he travels to the Far East where he discovers he’s practically a wizard, complete with a sentient cape. The dressing is different, but the beats are familiar. Our lead is humbled, tries to right his situation, and finds out he’s capable of far more than he ever thought possible.
There’s a strong cast of supporting characters, including Tilda Swinton (being delightfully odd), Benedict Wong (having a lot of fun), and Chiwetel Ejiofor (standing around in solemn contemplation), but there’s a certain by-the-numbers quality to the narrative.
The film even wastes the sinister charisma of Mads Mikkelsen with a villain the script seems to find more interesting than he really is.
And yet, once the film’s loopy visuals, directed by Scott Derrickson, and reality distortions kick in, I kind of don’t care. Doctor Strange is a kaleidoscopic, trippy wonder that’s a glorious sight to behold. It’s a world that owes a debt to MC Escher and Inception. Reality distorts and folds in upon itself, all the while framed in an environment of vibrant greens, blues, and oranges that feel like they stepped out of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” more than the MCU.
Beyond the visuals, however, Doctor Strange benefits from being almost entirely standalone. As a result, it feels more like its own thing than part of Marvel’s industrial complex. By the time the film builds to its climax, it subverts Marvel’s tropes as much as it’s beholden to them. Sure, there’s destruction, but it’s in a mirror universe, so there’s logic to it being inconsequential, and there’s something delightfully witty about a supreme threat being bested through the sheer annoyance of repetition. The whole, “Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain” Groundhog Day sequence, with the eternal loop of Strange attempting to make a deal, getting comedically murdered, then beginning the loop all over again is one of Marvel’s best narrative gags.
For all of the film’s faults, it’s having too much fun with its own giddy, reality-bending rules to not enjoy.
Yet, Doctor Strange still ranks in the bottom third of the MCU for me. It’s not that the film’s palette and LSD-inspired imagery overwhelm the characters. I think the actors equate themselves well in a world in which time and space have no meaning and they elevate material that really shouldn’t work, but the film just isn’t as interested in Dr. Strange as it is in the world in which he finds himself. Even the final scene, where we see his hand still twitching, it’s hard to feel the significance of him choosing not to heal himself, to allow it to serve as a reminder of where he originated because the film doesn’t focus on his emotional journey all that much. As a result, Doctor Strange is fun and giddily entertaining, but it’s not one I revisit as often as others.
Tomorrow, I dance with Baby Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy 2.