Marvel Studios is on a roll. 14 films into their box office domination, they have this down to a science. Condemn them all you want for a predictable blend of colorful action, quippy humor, and lovable, flawed characters; they know the exact type of crowd-pleasing films they’re aiming for and reliably hit that mark. Doctor Strange is no exception to this pattern. Its hero’s journey is predictable, even if the details are unique. Its action is spectacular and fresh, even if the outcome feels preordained.
Speaking of that action, Doctor Strange‘s visuals are absolutely nuts. Tilda Swinton wasn’t kidding when she said, “Marvel’s going to pull some shit out that no one’s ever seen before.” The film makes Inception feel quaint by comparison, and I can safely say that it contains Marvel’s most inventive spectacle yet. Without going into spoiler territory, the action is used in ways that isn’t just glee-inducing, but also bears thematic relevance. Strange’s powers feel utterly unique and otherworldly, a major plus for a universe of characters who often bludgeon their way to victory (which, I freely admit, is still fun to watch).
A grab bag of Acadamy Award honored fan favorites, the film lives and dies on the merits of its exceptional cast. Despite an American accent and a horrendously self-centered character, Benedict Cumberbatch is immeasurably likable in the title role. His chemistry with the calm smartassery of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) is palpable. Swinton is already campaigning for an Ancient One origin film, and I highly recommend that Marvel give it to her. She may be the most badass character in the MCU so far, and I’d love to see more of her.
Some folks have pointed to Stephen Strange’s intelligence, arrogance, and facial hair and called him nothing more than a “magical Iron Man rehash.” I disagree with this. Strange’s journey to heroism is altogether unique, and it leaves him in a very different state of mind than Tony has been in since the end of his first film, or any film since. Doctor Strange may play its origin story by the numbers, but its beats are well thought out and meaningful.
Strange’s arc is an odd one for a superhero. He starts out a selfish man who does the right things for the wrong reasons, slowly gaining an understanding of why this isn’t good enough to be a hero. His road to humility is believable and nuanced, and his paralyzing fear of failure is a problem that many will be able to empathize with. Like all good Marvel heroes, he’s defined by his weaknesses, not his powers.
Other than visuals, the film stands apart from many other Marvel Studios endeavors with a well-realized villain. Kaecilius, played by definitive bad guy Mads Mikkelsen, actually has a reasonable (if misguided) motive for his nefarious deeds. While the physical threat he poses is considerable, the scariest part of him comes from the fact that his attitude is dangerously close to that of our hero. Strange’s ego makes him uniquely sympathetic to Kaecilius’ cause, making his journey to heroism all the more uncertain.
Doctor Strange also has a killer soundtrack by first-time Marvel contributor (long time composer) Michael Giacchino. Unlike some critics, I really like most of Marvel’s scores, but Giacchino’s Pink Floyd-inspired tunes stand out as something a uniquely cool. I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with for Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Doctor Strange is no masterpiece of cinema. Its story is straightforward and its pacing plods ahead with few unexpected twists. But like most Marvel Studios endeavors, it’s an uncommonly polished and character-driven roller coaster ride with plenty of neat new things to look at. Marvel’s lasting appeal lies in its ability to create characters we want to see more of, and I can’t wait to see what they do next with the good Doctor.