Doctor Strange Review: Trippy Visuals & Why Marvel’s Formula Still Works

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Doctor Strange (2016)
Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelson 

As the saying goes, work with what you got and Marvel Studios has done exactly that. Without the cinematic rights to X-Men and Fantastic Four (at least for now), Marvel Studios has no other choice than to make household names out of lesser known properties like Doctor Strange. Steeped in the mystical arts and multi-dimensions, Doctor Strange offers a different flavor which compliments the current Marvel superhero line up.   

Doctor Strange is another superhero origin movie following a tried and true formula. But as someone who doesn’t know a whole lot about Doctor Stephen Strange’s backstory, I appreciate taking the journey with him from arrogant neurosurgeon to sorcerer supreme protecting Earth from mystical threats. So much of what makes Doctor Strange fun is seeing the gradual transformation, both in physical appearance and his beliefs, that I probably wouldn’t feel as invested in his story if the movie started out with him as a fully formed superhero.

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A number of A-list actors were considered for the lead role. Marvel Studio made a wise choice to wait for Benedict Cumberbatch’s schedule to open up. Perhaps Johnny Depp’s version would have been a little too eccentric. What works with Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange is that he’s grounded in the real world. As a viewer, we experience what Dr. Strange goes through, from being skeptical to eventually fully embracing the mystical arts. This is important because Doctor Strange goes far out there and lives up, at least visually, to descriptions like “a mind-bending trip”. If you thought Captain America’s shield doesn’t obey the laws of physics, Doctor Strange’s powers breaks the laws of nature in spectacular fashion.

Where Marvel movies are often critiqued are the love interests and villains. Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange has very good chemistry with Rachel McAdam’s Christine Palmer. It’s not meant to be a steamy, tear your clothes off Notebook-esque romance, but there’s a feeling of meaningful history between the two that is based on deep admiration. Mads Mikkelsen does the best he can as Kaecilius, a rogue sorcerer. With one and done villains, it’s sufficient enough that we simply understand their motivation without investing too much time to development them. 

Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE L to R: The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) Photo Credit: Film Frame ©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

The rest of the supporting cast is lead by Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, she has some of the best lines and I couldn’t help but to hang on her every word. Benedict Wong is solid as Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo is underused, but will likely have a bigger presence in the sequel.

Just a few spoiler free thoughts on the ending, you can skip this paragraph if you prefer. It’s a Whovian inspired resolution, to reference another famous doctor, which is true to Dr. Strange’s character, using quick wits over brawn. Dr. Strange isn’t a kung fu fighting superhero and we don’t want him to be something he’s not. What’s also clever about it is how it comes full circle in addressing Doctor Strange’s deepest character flaws: his arrogance and fear of failure.

Marvel Studios has got a winning formula to making superhero movies. Moviegoers can go into any Marvel Studio film expecting a well crafted, entertaining story that stays true to the comic-book origins with plenty of fun and laughs. Doctor Strange delivers on all fronts. If the formula isn’t broken, why fix it?

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