In the comics, Doctor Strange, like Ant-Man and Thor, has often worked better as a supporting character or as the member of a group than on his own. Which is both sad and odd, since he’s a rather interesting guy. So it’s a rather pleasant surprise that while the Doctor Strange movie isn’t as solid as The Avengers, Iron Man, or Captain America movies, it is much stronger — and, more importantly, more interesting — than Ant-Man and both Thor and Thor: The Dark World.
Essentially a bio pic, Doctor Strange stars Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness) as Stephen Strange, a brilliant but arrogant surgeon whose life falls apart when his hands are crushed in a car accident, causing him to lose his fine motor skills. After trying conventional medicine, which doesn’t help, he decides to explore alternative treatments, and ends up in Kathmandu, Nepal. Here, he meets The Ancient One (Snowpiercer‘s Tilda Swinton), who teaches Strange to use magic. And no, not the kind where you pull a rabbit out of a hat. What follows is a mystical journey in which Strange must learn to manipulate reality to save the version he lives in.
Or, to think of it another way, Doctor Strange is essentially Batman Begins if instead of training Bruce Wayne to be The Dark Knight, Ra’s Al Ghul trained him to be Neo from The Matrix…and Neo then scored some really good pills off Morpheus.
In many ways, Doctor Strange is very much a Marvel movie. It has a smattering of genuinely funny jokes, all of which seem like something someone would actually say, not one-liners that have been scripted by committee. Its script is equally clever, making this a far better origin story than Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and Fantastic 4, and, well, Batman Begins. And yes, that include the animated movie Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme.
More importantly, while Doctor Strange is respectful of the source material, it’s not slavishly beholden to it, and is instead essentially what the first issue of a Doctor Strange comic would be like if Steve Ditko has created the character now instead of in July of 1963 (Strange Tales #110, for those checking my work).
What makes Doctor Strange different from other Marvel movies is that, like the comics, its story gets weird in a very H.P. Lovecraft, Aleister Crowley kind of way, something that’s usually relegated to horror films, not superhero movies (Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army being the lone exceptions). But there’s also an element of the multiverse in the movie, the idea of parallel dimensions slightly different from our own, another concept not previously explored in superhero films. Which is why Doctor Strange is easily the most unique and interesting of the Marvel movies so far, and one of the more inventive superhero flicks as well.
It also helps that Doctor Strange has a great cast. Along with Cumberbatch and Swinton, who are as fine here as they are in movies not based on comic books, this also has Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children Of Men), who’s practically Shakespearean as fellow student Karl Mordo, the intense Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) as the bad guy, Benedict Wong (The Martian) as the sage-like Wong, and Rachel McAdams (Sherlock Holmes), who is likeable here as Strange’s coworker as she is, well, in pretty much every movie she’s been in save for Mean Girls.
But the real stars of Doctor Strange are the special effects. Had this movie been made ten, twenty years ago, it would’ve fallen apart under the weight of so much digital cheese. And while there are little bits here and there when it doesn’t entirely work, most of the time the special effects are, well, quite spectacular. They’re a real mind fuck, especially in the parts where a city starts folding in upon itself like that scene from Inception, though here that effect is cranked up to 11. Sure, we’ve seen the idea of a multiverse before in other movies (and in comics, video games, and novels), but Doctor Strange does an impressive job of presenting this concept visually.
There are, however, parts of Doctor Strange that are less impressive. Some of the score is a bit awkward, not all of the jokes land, while, as I mentioned, there are some effects that look like they could’ve used some extra time. Also, while one of the post-credits scenes is interesting, the other does something character-wise that I didn’t appreciate.
Also, having seen Doctor Strange in 3D and IMAX, I can say that while the former adds something to some scenes, it was also distracting in others, while the IMAX didn’t do any harm or good. In other words, seeing it in 3D isn’t a bad idea, but I wouldn’t sweat it.
But the biggest problem with Doctor Strange is, rather fittingly, one that can’t be easily explained. While the movie never drags, it also never flies along like The Avengers, Iron Man, or even such non-MCU Marvel superhero movies as Deadpool or the first X-Men. While it starts off strong, and has some great moments, it doesn’t have the effortless feel of those movies.
Still, as Marvel’s movies go, it’s still exhilarating and fun, and a much more engaging and interesting origin story than was given to Ant-Man or Thor.