REVIEW: 'Doctor Strange' is an energetic but ephemeral spin through the mystic arts

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When we talk about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, plenty of theories are put forth about how the 14 movies released to date have done so well. You can cite the distribution power of Disney, the relative ease with which superhero movies play in foreign markets, or just the generally positive tone that sets the films apart from their closest competitors, the dour entries in the DC Extended Universe. But there’s another factor that doesn’t get enough credit: Marvel Studios’ skill for packaging up pre-existing ingredients.

After all, the world of comics is a perplexing, sometimes laughably dense realm to sell to the average moviegoer. A producer like Kevin Feige (who’s been attached to every Marvel film so far) faces the daunting task of paring back the thousands of characters and plots at the studio’s disposal into films that non-fans of comics can follow. And as Marvel’s latest movie Doctor Strange shows, one of the best ways to do that is by adapting familiar material from other filmmakers into a delivery mechanism for some truly wacked-out adventures.

So yes, if you see Doctor Strange and recognize the handiwork of the Wachowskis or Christopher Nolan, it may actually be intentional. The training segments in The Matrix and Batman Begins and the trippy landscapes in Inception have an obvious influence on Scott Derrickson’s film, but they don’t feel pasted in, out of laziness. Instead, the ideas that Derrickson borrows are cinematic references that ease us into a world with the potential to send some viewers giving up in the first 45 minutes. Psst: don’t tell them the main character’s catchphrase is supposed to be, “By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!!”

The film's mystical mythology prompts some fantastic visuals.
The film's mystical mythology prompts some fantastic visuals.

Sequences quoted from other movies aren’t the end of the familiar components in Doctor Strange. It’s an origin story, so certain things come with that territory: a reluctant hero, a wise instructor, the imbuing of special powers, and a villain with world-destruction on the brain. In this case, we follow Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), an egotistical neurosurgeon with a perfect track record and a taste for fancy apartments and luxury watches. When he crashes his Lamborghini one night (don’t examine X-rays and drive, kids!), Strange’s miracle-working hands are irreversibly damaged, sending him on a quest to find someone who can restore his old life.

The journey leads Strange to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) a mystic in Nepal who turns out to be the leader of a sect of sorcerers protecting the world from inter-dimensional threats (no big deal, honestly). Strange is reluctantly recruited, schooled in the mystic arts and drawn into a battle with a zealot called Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). All the while, he has to reckon with whether to put his powers to work for good, or to return to his well-meaning, yet selfish medical career.

Two of Doctor Strange’s best assets are the trimness of the story and its sense of humour. The former keeps things at a brisk (for the genre) 1 hour 55 minutes, while the latter was a genuine surprise to me. The jokes rely on a combination of dry character moments and sight gags, and keep the film from getting lost in the self-seriousness inherent in the movie’s mythology. After hearing names like “Eye of Agamotto” and “Dormammu of the Dark Dimension” a few times, it’s a relief to get a sequence where Strange uses magical portals to steal library books while the monastery librarian is distracted by blasting Beyoncé on his phone.

Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is the leader of the zealots trying to end the world.
Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is the leader of the zealots trying to end the world.

To its credit, the film tries harder than some of its fellow Marvel entries to layer the main character with complexities. Strange’s egoism is perhaps a more compelling trait than the hazily-defined political positions of the other Avengers. But the script – co-written by Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill and the director – loses its grip on how and why Strange suddenly succeeds at sorcery. He’s told to “empty his mind” but the film neglects to show how Strange achieves this; all we get are training montages. For a guy who allegedly only want to fix his hands, he spends an awful lot of time learning completely unrelated spells and techniques – evidence of how the screenplay ignores logical character development so it can position Strange as the only hope to defeat the villain.

Still, this is by no means out of the ordinary for a Marvel movie, as the solo character movies are almost always propelled forward by the invisible gears of the studio’s plot machine, and not necessarily by character motivation. In this way, Doctor Strange’s biggest contribution is to widen the film universe even further, expanding it to a “infinite multiverse” in the words of the Ancient One, and not merely the Nine Realms of the Thor movies and the outer space playground of Guardians of the Galaxy.

I like to think of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the Apple Inc. of comics: they succeed in streamlining and polishing things that have existed in other, less elegant forms for years. Doctor Strange is like a new product in the lineup: it opens up the range, and delivers what may be the most accessible form of the stuff it’s based on. But maybe it’s worth asking yourself: are you satisfied with a smartwatch, or do you push for a Jaeger-LeCoultre?

Doctor Strange gets three stars out of four.

Three Stars

What did you think of Marvel’s fourteenth film? Did it do justice to the bombastic source material? Or is it an example of Marvel biding its time until a more crowd-pleasing release? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!