The Secret Weapon is Groundhog Day
A Film Review of Doctor Strange
The second chapter in Marvel Studios’ third phase of its cinematic universe reveals itself to the world in the form of Doctor Strange and once again, most audiences will be pleased with yet another charismatic hero who is quick with the witty banter, not too short on character flaws stemming from ego and quite capable of amazing deeds. Does any of this sound familiar? Yes, Dr. Strange is a “brand new” character in the MCU introducing us to Marvel’s magical side, but you wouldn’t be remiss if you felt shades of this exact model from Star-Lord, and you would have to be doped up on mescaline to not notice some outright carbon copying of Tony Stark. Granted, the comic books paint brilliant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange into a similar lifestyle of genius, wealth and individual accomplishment (therefore justifying his hubris), but Hollywood has never demonstrated any particular loyalty to the source material unless it serves a specific purpose. Audiences love Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, and he won’t be a part of the MCU forever. It makes sense to groom another to fill the void . . .
. . . but not at the expense of diversity: the lack thereof being the greatest weakness of these Marvel films. The critical community has been right to harp on the point that most of these heroes happen to be of a specific sex and of a specific ethnicity, but that’s less Kevin Feige’s fault (but still worthy of some blame) and more of a stone cold fact of Hollywood’s own business model, and my evidence is every movie, ever. The lack of diversity on the surface suggests white washing (which certainly isn’t good), but it is in fact doing something worse: homogenizing its heroes. Audiences are finally starting to recognize familiar patterns in visual storytelling, and when the main characters are all the same, it should come to no one’s surprise that plot, structure, theme, action, climax and the all important ending have essentially become the same. This is the reason why people complain about Hollywood’s lack of creativity. It is the reason why the phrase “Die Hard on a (fill in the blank)” was used to demean action films that go through the motions. If Marvel Studios isn’t careful, the new saying might become “Marvel origin story in (a tech suit), (a spider suit), (a Norse god), (an American Flag) or in the case of Doctor Strange (a magic carpet)."
Mind you, I am having a bit of fun at Doctor Strange’s expense because despite its “been there/done that” plot, its visual presentation is easily the most technologically aggressive fabricated reality we have ever seen from a Marvel film. Normally, I raise an eyebrow at direct commercial suggestion, but this film truly is worth seeing in 3D (preferably IMAX) as its reality bending effects feature precise details in the fore, mid and background giving the 3D effect layers upon layers of eye candy to feast on. There’s no question that this film is inspired by Inception, but let’s just say that Doctor Strange pushes far beyond what is teased in the trailers to deliver a perfectly appropriate and distinct visual representation of magical sorcery that exists in the same world as tech suits and green rage monsters. I could almost make the case that one could simply throw out the entire plot and every character, and simply show the audience the visual montage, and it would still be worth the price of admission. Almost.
Magic implies some form of ranged, energy projectile combat, but surprisingly that is not the case here. All combat is either hand to hand or using relics or conjured items as melee weapons which is executed quite well. Matter manipulation is also a cool form of combat.
The only place the frame doesn’t go is beyond the fourth wall. Expect a dynamic frame that is constantly shifting orientation and perspective.
Benedict Cumberbatch is decent as Dr. Strange, and I believe him when he’s playing a jerk surgeon or a studious sorcerer, but not as a former lover or sympathetic student. Specifically, I need to see more expression through his face. Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One is played with the patented level of creepy elusiveness she brings to all her roles.
Mads Mikkelsen is a good actor playing another forgettable villain in Kaecilius because the script can’t be bothered to give him enough scenes to work with. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo is much more emotive, intelligent and capable as Strange’s trainer/mentor. Benedict Wong’s Wong (not a typo) manages to be imposing and comical with precious little screen time as the keeper of ancient texts.
I remember the orchestration not being bad. But do I remember anything else about it?
Oh yes, much better here. Magical sounds effectively mirror what appears to be physically happening to the frame on the screen, thus making it even easier for the audience to understand what exactly is happening before their eyes.
“Moving” = 24/33
The best and most 3D worthy visuals I’ve seen since Avatar.
It seems as though most of the practical gags were used in the Dr. Strange as the surgeon performing surgery or during his recovery towards the beginning of the film. These are nuanced and completely overshadowed by digital.
Cults, ancient orders, and Shaolin type warriors do not don fancy getups. Effective, but not particularly dynamic.
Hair & Makeup
Dr. Strange gets beat to hell and back in this film and is shown to be quite brutal.
Wide pans of NYC with Avengers Tower in the middle are neat. Also, the digital exteriors featuring magic bending buildings are a fun treat indeed.
Humble and appropriate. See costumes.
“Picture” = 24/33
A super rich and arrogant SOB gets wicked karmic backlash then becomes super powerful and semi-arrogant. Isn’t this the plot of Iron Man?
Strange’s internal conflict of who he should be for whom he should fight isn’t fleshed out too well. I simply don’t buy how he is a certain way at some point and now he’s different just because. External threats are much more obvious seeing how they are trying to kill you.
An immediate, global threat is averted, but true resolution seems an illusion as this film’s lasting impression is that of a setup film for a direct sequel, and Marvel knows all about setup flicks. Bonus point for yet another unconventional strategy to defeat a more powerful foe at the end for the win.
This film truly succeeds awkward dialogue in comedic moments between characters as well as overtly negative moments of conflict. Normal moments of describing the here and now of a character’s status and emotion are bland and seeking motivation.
Not so cleverly disguised as healthier segments of dialogue and though the audience is delivered the pertinent information we need to understand, its presentation needs more tact. Also, a little back story to these ancient magicians would be helpful. Showing more and telling less is yet another pro tip.
Tony Stark 2.0 with magic.
A photographic memory is useful in any profession, but can anyone off the street really do magic? I can buy into redemption, swallowing of one’s pride and looking beyond one’s self, but I cannot buy into that if these are the “rules” of magic.
“Story” = 18/34
Overall MPS Rating: 66/100
This was an entertaining film that not only introduces another marquee personality of Marvel’s pantheon, but pushes us further down the path to Infinity where a certain gauntlet held by a certain Mad Titan awaits us all. But if Thanos is truly a threat to the fabric of infinite reality, then Marvel Studios should seriously consider Part I of Infinity War to be his proper origin story to make us understand why he is what he is and why he’s doing what he’s doing. There’s no guarantee that a better scripted villain would have pushed Dr. Strange to be a better hero in this film, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. I expect infinitely more for Thanos. I was really excited when the Doctor Strange film was suggested to not be a traditional origin story as first reported by Devin Faraci from Badass Digest. Devin and his Marvel sources at the time were incorrect. The Marvel film formula is tried and true, but becoming tired and terse and in this case, held this film back from greatness. All we got is a good setup for potential greatness.