Review – Doctor Strange (2016)

First of all, the TL;DR: Doctor Strange is a visual masterpiece which nonetheless leaves something to be desired. The writing follows the “Marvel” formula of charismatic lead making sarcastic quips with a smooth rhythm. The climax is very well thought-out and planned, but Doctor Strange lacks an emotionally satisfying story. 7/10

The Review [May Contain Spoilers]:

From the very beginning Doctor Strange is magical. The way the camera tracks the shifting and twisting landscapes of the magical kung fu duels makes the film a true pleasure to watch. In terms of raw visual impact, this film deserves to be placed with The Matrix (1999) and Inception (2010). Several recurring effects throughout the film are reminiscent of the latter – the walls twist and turn, changing the direction of gravity and reality’s blueprint – but with an extra step. There’s a feel of M.C. Escher throughout most of the sequences. (As an aside, if you suffer of motion sickness be sure to take a dramamine beforehand.)

To state that the story told in Doctor Strange has problems isn’t quite accurate. A whole plot is constructed and presented. However, I found it difficult to become emotionally invested in the titular character. Doctor Strange‘s premise of mystical wizards is immediately intriguing, but at its core the film is quite nearly a remake of Batman Begins (2005), or even Iron Man (2008). We have an arrogant and entertaining jackass for a main character who runs around trying to find meaning in his life after a major accident. He finds meaning through cryptic and unusual training – told primarily through a montage sequence – and somewhere along the way he learns the value of self-sacrifice.

There’s nothing wrong with this plot – as demonstrated in the commercial and critical success of those films – but that story simply isn’t told very well in Doctor Strange. Although its a story which has been told and re-told across comics, books, and movies, its execution here doesn’t quite succeed.

First, the movie fails to make it feel as if Strange has earned his powers. His internal conflict is fairly well presented (in particular, I appreciated that it was made explicit that he had to choose between magic and the healing of the damage to his nervous system) and the film hints that time has passed, but as a viewer I certainly didn’t feel it. The amount of time Strange spends learning to use magic is never explicitly stated. His first battle (apart from training and sparring) with the antagonist, a master-class wizard (Kaecilius, played by Mads Mikkelson), and the antagonist’s loyal zealots, who have already killed another master and several students. Yet while still considered a student Strange confounds the antagonist single-handedly!

Similar struggles with story-logic continue throughout the film. In the end, Strange seems to have magically learned to surrender himself (and the film seems to have thoroughly mangled the Eastern notion of no-self) both to master magic, and to ensnare the external menace Dormammu in a time loop which requires him to repeatedly give up his own life.

This climax is very well crafted, and I was delighted in how Strange defeats Dormammu (even if his defeat of the actual antagonist, Kaecilius, felt underwhelming) using the repeatedly foreshadowed and forbidden time magic. Using time to defeat a creature from outside time was a very clever twist which helped reduce the feeling of deus ex machina which the time magic otherwise created since it required cleverness and creativity on Strange’s part to solve the problem. The actual shot where Strange zooms off to face Dormammu is nearly identical to when Iron Man flies off through the portal at the close of The Avengers (2012), but that’s the stage of minor quibbling.

Where I am disappointed that Doctor Strange took from the other Marvel films is in its insistence on following what I consider the “Marvel formula.” This is, of course, something found throughout film and literature. The witty, egotistical hero behaves wittily and egotistically throughout the film only to turn out to have a heart of gold (not the ship) and save the day. With a setting as interesting and different from the other Marvel Universe films, I was disappointed that at the end of the film it felt like I had just seen any other Marvel movie. Very often the dialogue followed the same well-used pattern of phrase-beat-phrase-punchline. This was best exemplified, in Strange’s interactions with Wong, the librarian (played by Benedict Wong).

I had hoped this film would be something different to other (admittedly enjoyable) Marvel fare; it succeeded visually, but left me unsatisfied in dialogue and storytelling.

That being said, I felt the acting was quite good throughout. While the film’s soul was a bit ratty, overused, and beneath its own potential, it wore a spectacular coat and boots. Enough so that it almost disappointed me, in a way; I went to see a movie about wizards, and I got a kung-fu movie with superpowers instead. This disappointment may however be because I’m not terribly familiar with the film’s source material. Doctor Strange was closer to Star Wars than Harry Potter, while I anticipated the opposite.

All in all, I think this is a movie worth watching – particularly while in theaters, where the visuals will be better shown off – but that it likely won’t be memorable beyond the pretty lights and colors. Unlike its cohorts The Matrix and Inception, Doctor Strange‘s plot and writing bring little of conceptual interest to the table, either new or re-hashed. While the ride’s a bit empty, it nonetheless remains enormously fun.

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