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Marvel’s Doctor Strange, co-written and directed by Scott Derrickson, is formulaic to a fault, but still brings enough flavor, variety and most of all, fun to make the familiar Marvel song-and-dance feel fresh and exciting again.
Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), one of the world’s best neurosurgeons, is left with irreparable nerve damage in his hands after a car accident. His career and life in shambles, the desperate Strange is willing to try anything to heal his injuries. His path leads him to Nepal, where a master of the mystic arts known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) opens his mind to knowledge and powers beyond anything he could have imagined.
The plot of Doctor Strange is part Iron Man – an arrogant, wealthy genius is forced to see the error of his ways and is set on a path of righteousness after a life-changing injury (plus both men rock a goatee) – and part Thor, as the mystic arts are explained through scientific metaphor and analogy, and the character of Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is being set up as a recurring, complex character.
A lot of the building blocks of the movie are also familiar Marvel tropes – the waste of a great actor in an underwritten central antagonist role (this time it’s Mads Mikkelsen’s turn), ditto for a great actress as a bland female romantic interest (ball’s in your court, Rachel McAdams). There’s also the pointless shirtless scene for the male lead, a third act that delights in tearing entire cities to pieces and the persistent quips and witticisms that pepper the dialogue.
It’s hardly a secret that the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are formulaic and Doctor Strange makes no attempt to preach to the unconverted – it’s actually even more patchy at times than some of the studio’s other offerings, with certain plot beats that are so thin you’d swear the movie was tied together with old shoestrings (possibly a side effect of your characters having the ability to open portals to pretty much anywhere at any time).
Yet like so many other Marvel movies, Doctor Strange has a living, beating heart that makes it more than the sum of its parts. The characterization is solid, the cast is great (even if some of them have far less to work with than others) and the pace is light and breezy. Cumberbatch slips into the role with incredible ease and wears both the goatee and the costume with dignity and grace – but he and the movie are comfortable enough to make more than a few jokes at his expense as well. He’s had a troubled history with accents, particularly American ones, but this time he does just fine.
The key to a successful Marvel movie is to change just enough to keep the formula from becoming stale and repetitive. The Captain America movies spiced things up with a political thriller vibe and a much more grounded, hard-hitting approach to action sequences, while Guardians of the Galaxy doubled down on the outlandish and the ridiculous by having a bunch wacky misfits in space.
Doctor Strange‘s unique flavor is similar to the Thor movies, but while the latter emphasizes the epic fantasy roots of its world and characters, the former focuses on the mind-bending, dimension-hopping nature of its magic powers. The set-pieces in Doctor Strange offer the best defense for the continued use of extensive CGI in movies – the boundless creativity on display here can honestly make you giddy. Think Inception‘s shifting perspectives and landscapes, but on a variety of drugs and on a much more massive scale.
It cannot be overstated how amazing the special effects in this movie are and how much they help to give it a distinct identity. The sequence in which the Ancient One introduces Strange to magic alone, with its barrage of trippy visuals, is enough to cement Doctor Strange‘s status as a worthwhile entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
While much of Doctor Strange leans on well-worn Marvel tropes, there’s more than enough here’s that’s new to keep fans engaged and entertained. If you didn’t like Marvel superhero movies, to begin with, this is not the movie that will change your mind. To everyone else, this is a fine introduction to the adventures of the Sorcerer Supreme.