For a film meant to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) into the novel territory of alternate dimensions and mind-bending magic, Doctor Strange sure does play it safe. Though many of the visuals are fascinating, some are overly show-offy, like an elaborate ornament on an otherwise bland facade. The acting talent and the performances that they deliver are impressive, but they are relied upon to prop up a flimsy story that inadequately introduces us to this new facet of the MCU. Similarly, most of the characters are unbalanced, uneven, and inconsistent – as though the filmmakers were afraid of allowing Dr. Strange to be too much of an asshole. Finally, aside from an innovative and interesting climactic sequence, the plot is about as by-the-numbers as one can imagine. Overall, this is the disquieting flaw of Doctor Strange: the eye-popping visuals are in direct aesthetic conflict with the safeness of the narrative and thematic choices. The result is a reasonable entry into the MCU, but a film which isn’t appreciably better than the average origin story.
There isn’t a great deal to the plot of Doctor Strange. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a uniquely talented neurosurgeon who injures his hands in a car accident. He is characterized by his confidence, which borders on arrogance, and his selfish egotism, especially when interacting with his loe interest Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). In an effort to heal his hands so he can continue his practice, Strange travels to the East in search of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a being which holds incredible sequences. In her presence, Strange is introduced to the vast realities of the multiverse, and begins to learn the way of these sorcerers . The antagonist in this story is an outcast sorcerer named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) bent on summoning an otherworldly demon, which Strange and his colleagues must fight.
There is an extreme lack of risk in this kind of story, but it mostly serve to introduce us to these characters and the rules of magic in the MCU. Some of it is a bit confusing or glossed over, like how Strange succeeds so quickly in this new endeavor, especially with highly-advanced techniques. The explanations we do get also feel incredibly expository and kind of hammy, save for a few brilliant sequences which we’ll get to soon. Overall, the plot is fine. The strongest critique one can make is that it is too safe.
One portion of the film that bucks this blandness is the climactic battle sequence, which is refreshingly novel and cool. I’ll not go into specific spoilers, but suffice to say that despite another relatively weak villain, Doctor Strange utilizes various storytelling elements to arrive at a final battle which is not simply a big fist-fight to save the world. It is imaginative, clever, and very fun to watch unfold. I’d probably even go so far as to call it the best “final fight” in the MCU to date, as even far-more accomplished films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy have a bit of a stumble at the climax. This is an example of a great plotting choice – I simply wish that the rest of the plot could compare.
Serving this plot – I would even go so far as to say propping it up – is absurdly strong acting from an incredibly talented cast. It begins with Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Strange, which is great even if the filmmakers aren’t quite consistent enough in his character. McAdams may not have much to do, but she at least injects a little pathos into the film. Smaller parts like Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), Swinton and Mikkelsen are all really powerful. This may be the best collection of genuine talent than we have ever seen in a Marvel film, especially if you disregard the huge ensemble pieces like Avengers. In fact, the ability of these actors may be one reason the rest of the film is so safe: the filmmakers possibly chose to lean on these actors’ strengths in lieu of a more developed story.
I hear your complaints already: how can I call a film with the visuals of Doctor Strange “safe” and “bland” with a straight face. While there are inarguably fantastic CGI sequences in this film, not every visual in this film is an unreserved triumph. The difference is fairly simple: some of the visuals serve the story and have a goal to accomplish (and then actually accomplish that goal), whereas other visuals are simply there to show off.
As an example, consider the sequence when The Ancient One forces Strange through a tour of the multiverse. The intention of this sequence I to bewilder Strange (and by extension, the audience). Hence, the bizarre visuals, psychedelic color patterns, fractals made of hands, and so on are all in service of a narrative goal: introduce the protagonist to the myriad unknown possibilities of reality, and relish in the weirdness. Other examples of this story-serving CGI include some of the battle sequences. When the characters are altering the rules of engagement, creating obstacles, or being clever with solutions to these obstacles, you feel that the reality-bending is essential to the fight. When Doctor Strange does this right, it is awe-inspiring, and is truly one of the film’s greatest triumphs.
When it does this wrong, it only reflects the blandness of the underlying “action”. When your CGI is just to show off the strength of your 10-core rendering cluster and have a pretty background for your characters to fight through, it feels tacky and distracting. This is exemplified in the fight sequence that closes the second act, when Strange traps Kaecilius in the mirror version of New York, and the source of most of the eye-popping stuff you see in the trailers. By the end of this sequence, the characters are surrounded by reality that I twisted so badly that it is practically undecipherable (and, from my position, almost indescribable). The effect is that the setting becomes nothing but window-dressing to spice up an otherwise boring confrontation. They might as well have just been hovering in space, a la Neo vs. Agent Smith in Matrix Revolutions.
There is a difference: use the visuals to serve the story, not just to show what your CG artists can do.
Unfortunately, the disposable CGI isn’t the only issue with Doctor Strange. The arc of Strange is a little weak and unconvincing, which may be due to how the character is established at the beginning of the film. They aren’t quite sure exactly how much of a negative portrayal they can get away with. Hence, they temper Strange’s frustrated jerky tendencies with a cornball sense of humor and a love for pop music. It’s like they tried to mix up a Tony Stark Light and ended up with the portions of smarmy and dickish. From this point, his arc feels inconsistent, especially with regards to the arrogance that he is often criticized for. It isn’t outright failure, but it is certainly uneven.
This difficulty with Strange’s arc leads to an overall muddled theme that leans heavily on “your ego is bad, stop thinking about yourself”. For what it is worth, Strange’s arrogance / selfishness does receive some payoff in the climactic sequence, which is another strength of the film. But, for the most part, it seems that Doctor Strange doesn’t really have too much to say. Look, I get that it is a comic book movie, so I am not looking for Schindler’s List or anything, but can’t I at least get something more than a tired condemnation of selfishness? Other MCU movies have managed to champion complex themes quite well, so it is a disappointment that this film could not.
In the end, Doctor Strange is a fine film that simply relies too much on mind-bending CGI and acting talent to make up for deficits in storytelling, characterization, and any kind of thematic message. Those visuals are stunning, but when they fail to serve the overall story, they feel tacky and exploitative instead of bewildering and mind-expanding. That there are multiple dazzling sequences is great, but it makes one wonder why there couldn’t be more consistency throughout the film, and more attention paid to other elements of the story.