We’re officially 13 films deep into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), spanning upwards of eight years along the way. From the best movies in the saga to the worst, each installment has served an especial purpose. In the case of Doctor Strange, we’re seeing the MCU move in a decidedly more mystical direction. It marks a new chapter for the Marvel franchise as they begin searching for ways to prevent burnout on the part of their audience. With perennial leading man, Benedict Cumberbatch on board, it has all the trappings of another MCU success story … sort of.
The story itself follows Doctor Strange’s comic book origin closely: A skilled, yet egotistical surgeon gets in a horrible accident that maims his hands, leading him to search for a cure for his massive nerve damage. Unable to find a solution in Western medicine, he turns east, where he stumbles upon the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a sorcerer who takes him in to instruct him on all things mystical and magical. Along the way, he’s tasked with stopping a former student of the Ancient One (Mads Mikkelsen) from unmaking reality as we know it.
From a CGI standpoint, Doctor Strange‘s effects team is pretty much a shoe-in for an Oscar. The kaleidoscope-style CGI and reality-bending aesthetic make for a visual feast on a level that’s rarely seen. Even in a landscape of tentpole franchises that are slowly moving back toward practical effects and hand-built sets, Marvel manages to make us feel as though CGI was the best and only way to go for Doctor Strange.
But that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t without a myriad of issues related to its story. If the whole “rich, quippy snob who suffers a tragedy that forces him to question his reality and become a hero” motif seems familiar, that’s because it’s lifted straight out of the first Iron Man movie.
In many ways, it’s tough to fault Doctor Strange for that, given that it’s clear Cumberbatch is being groomed to fill the void left by Robert Downey Jr.’s inevitable departure sometime in the near future. And yet still, it’s also obvious that Marvel can pretty much make an origin story in their sleep at this point, and that they phoned in the inclusion of compelling story elements in favor of stunning visual effects.
That brings us to the major weakness of virtually every MCU film: the villain. Doctor Strange features a big bad so profoundly forgettable, that I had to check IMDb just now to get his name (it’s Kaecilius). We once again have a cardboard Marvel villain whose primary aim resides in the realm of wanting to take over/destroy the world/universe. It’s the sort of character depth you’d expect out of an Adam West-led Batman serial, not a multi-billion dollar movie franchise.
All villain issues aside, Cumberbatch shines as Stephen Strange. He brings a Downey-esque charisma to the role that makes it easy to envision him leading the MCU for years to come. As the man behind Tony Stark becomes prohibitively expensive to keep on board for Marvel, the Avengers and company will need a new charming, rule-averse leader played by an A-list talent. Cumberbatch proved he can be just that in Doctor Strange.
So how does the latest and weirdest addition to the MCU fit in contextually with the rest of the franchise’s films? In terms of originality, narrative power, and sheer entertainment value, I’d peg this one as just a shade below Ant-Man, and a step above the lower tier of MCU movies that includes Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2, and The Incredible Hulk. Doctor Strange is a perfectly serviceable superhero flick, albeit one that largely paints by numbers story-wise.
Doctor Strange‘s most significant addition to the MCU isn’t actually found in its stunning visuals. Rather, it marks a new chapter in the franchise by bringing magic and mysticism into the fold. Past films have generally stuck to a premise rooted in logic and reason, even painting Thor‘s world of flying hammers and Norse gods as science we simply don’t understand yet. Doctor Strange is unafraid in its introduction of a world that defies the natural laws of our world, and it opens up a whole host of possibilities for Marvel moving forward.
Most notably, Marvel proves with Doctor Strange that even when they’re going through the motions from a narrative standpoint, they’re still beating DC at the superhero game. It would serve their counterparts over at Warner to learn the beauty of a simple story buoyed by charismatic actors who are allowed to spread their wings. As it stands now, there’s plenty of hope on the horizon for 2017’s release of Wonder Woman. But in 2016, Marvel continues to reign supreme, and Doctor Strange does little to slow that forward momentum.
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