Doctor Strange is at turns Marvel’s most impressive and most disappointing effort yet. It admirably finds new ways to create set pieces, introduce new elements like magic and time manipulation, and fun new characters like Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). And yet the movie includes the same tired elements we’ve seen in multiple other Marvel movies. One-dimensional villain? Check. The third act climax hinging on death from above? Check. A hero who starts out as a dick but learns it’s nice to be nice? Check. On the surface, Marvel’s universe looks like it’s getting bigger, but Doctor Strange makes it feel smaller than ever before.
Stephen Strange is a brilliant, arrogant surgeon whose life falls apart when he’s in a car accident that costs him the use of his hands. When western medicine runs out of answers, he makes his way to Nepal where he meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), the Sorcerer Supreme who introduces him to the mystic arts. Strange begins learning how to travel through portals, summon weapons and shields using interdimensional energy, astral projection, and other fun stuff. His training is interrupted when The Ancient One’s old student Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) tries to open a portal to the dark dimension and summon the evil creature Dormammu who will stop time itself.
Mads Mikkelsen was originally attached to play a one-dimensional villain bent on consuming the Earth in darkness in Thor: The Dark World, but he had to drop out, so thankfully he now has a chance to play a one-dimensional villain bent on consuming the Earth in darkness in Doctor Strange. To be fair, the film gives Kaecilius a position that at least ties in thematically to Strange’s journey, which is that Strange must learn to accept death rather than trying to conquer it. It’s an interesting position for a villain to have, but that doesn’t make Kaecilius an interesting character, and it’s a waste of Mikkelsen’s talent.
Then again, at least Mikkelsen has some semblance of a character with his own agenda, which is more than I can say for the sorely wasted Rachel McAdams who plays Strange’s co-worker and ex-girlfriend Christine Palmer. You could cut Christine from the movie, and it would be pretty much the same. There’s a scene where Christine saves Strange’s life by performing surgery on him, but if this part were just played by ER Doctor #1, nothing would change. Strange’s character would be the same, the movie would be the same, and at the very least we wouldn’t be left wondering yet again why a talented actress like McAdams takes roles that are beneath her.
At least there’s something to do for Swinton and Ejiofor, although the strength of their characters is due more to the acting rather than the writing. The Ancient One is the Mentor Figure who we’ve seen in Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Ant-Man to name a few, but at least she looks like she’s having a ball with the role. The Ancient One is a tricky balancing act because the character has huge responsibilities, and yet her advice to Strange is that he needs to stop trying to control everything. This gives The Ancient One a bit of a carefree spirit where she almost comes off like a playful god. The universe is her playground, and we just happen to be in it.
Mordo is in a tougher position. Given more time, it probably would have been better if the film tried to build a substantive friendship between Mordo and Strange, but as it stands, Strange seems closer to the monastery’s librarian, Wong (Benedict Wong) and Mordo is more of a sparring partner. While the film hints at dark times from Mordo’s past, it’s Ejiofor’s performance that brings pathos and pain to the role rather than anything that adequately explains Mordo’s attitude. He’s not a bad character, but he also feels like a shadow of what could have been.
Of course, this is Doctor Strange’s film, and it makes sense to devote the most time to him. Unfortunately, if you’ve seen Iron Man or Thor or Guardians of the Galaxy, you’ve kind of seen where Doctor Strange is going. He may be more of an asshole than Tony Stark, Thor, or Star-Lord, but he’s the same character type: funny, arrogant guy who must learn humility. While Strange’s journey is slightly textured by the character learning to be okay with what’s broken in his life, it’s nevertheless the same character arc we’ve seen three times before. Cumberbatch is fine in the role, although his acid tongue loses some of its charm when speaking with an American accent.
The problem comes when trying to give Stephen Strange the same arc as Tony Stark or Thor because they are standalone characters whereas Strange is joining a society of sorcerers. Going into Doctor Strange, I hoped there would be some explanation as to why this magical neophyte is the one who gets to save the world when he’s surrounded by other sorcerers who have more practice with the mystic arcs. Sadly, the film doesn’t really have a good answer, and while Strange does manage to save the day, his heroism diminishes just about every other sorcerer. Mordo, Wong, and everyone else contribute nothing, and so it rests on Stephen Strange being special just because he’s special. It’s a movie that wants to uphold selflessness as a virtue, but then turns around and says that only Strange can save the day.
So you have a familiar hero fighting a familiar villain leading to a familiar conclusion, and director Scott Derrickson’s game-changer is nothing more than a change of scenery. On the one hand, he sends the movie through some trippy visuals, and then has one of the chase scenes play like Inception on steroids. They’re fun to watch, and at the very least these scenes suggest a visual boldness that was lacking in other Marvel movies (don’t even get me started on the dullness of the quantum realm in Ant-Man). While I don’t think every Marvel movie needs these kinds of trippy visuals, I hope we’ll see the studio take some chances in their other films.
However, these new visuals don’t offer up anything new to how Marvel is telling its stories. Marvel didn’t hire a director as much as they hired a decorator, and while it’s neat to see the movie play with some unique settings, it can turn into an absolute chore when it’s nothing more than two astrally projected spirits brawling in a hospital. I understand that there’s only so many different ways you can create unique fight scenes, and Doctor Strange has its fair share, but at the same time, nothing in the visuals solve the film’s pacing problems or that it’s drawing on the same tropes we’ve seen in previous MCU installments.
Doctor Strange likes to think it’s adding a new dimension to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in truth it’s the same story from a slightly different perspective. The film’s tagline teases, “The impossibilities are endless,” but Derrickson’s film has shown the MCU to be fairly limited in the kinds of stories it’s telling. Making a movie where Iron Man has magic powers isn’t really turning the MCU upside down, and while I remain hopeful for future Marvel movies, Doctor Strange shows that although the Marvel Cinematic Universe certainly has breadth, its depth is disconcertingly shallow.