Once again, a Marvel superhero has vanquished his enemies and sits atop the box office. For the 14th time in a row, a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie opened at number one, with “Doctor Strange” exceeding expectations, despite one of the more far-out premises of the franchise, an as-yet-unintroduced character, and a leading man, Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s mostly untested as a leading man in the blockbuster world.
But as ever, the magic Marvel formula saw the film getting good reviews and positive reaction from audiences. But as ever with Marvel, it’s not a complete triumph. Since launching their own studio in 2008 with “Iron Man,” the company has specialized in movies that are generally pretty good (with a few that are middling to bad), but never truly great, and “Doctor Strange” is a similar mixed bag, one with a lot to like about it, but quite a few downsides too.
Our review said as much (catch up with that here), but as we often do in the aftermath of a big movie like this, now that people have seen it, we’ve gone forensic with a closer look at the good and the bad of “Doctor Strange.” Take a look at our thoughts below — **beware spoilers!** — and let us know your thoughts on the movie in the comments.
The one thing that Marvel has absolutely nailed with almost everyone of their movies at this point is tone, and “Doctor Strange” is no exception. There’s a certain vibe that you’ve come to expect from the studio’s output now — big stakes and some high drama, punctuated with, but never punctured by, comedy and a certain level of humanity. We’d wondered if “Doctor Strange” might prove to be an exception — both trailers and director Scott Derrickson had promised something darker and more serious than usual — but the Marvel brand’s very much in effect, with some slight tweaks. The sense of magic and wonder is amped up, arguably more so than in any of these other films, and the humor, while present, sometimes serves a different purpose — Strange is a smart-ass who other people don’t find as funny as he finds himself, and many of his wisecracks fall seemingly deliberately flat. Indeed, it’s the way he plays off the more mystical cast members that provides some of the best humor — Mordo and The Ancient One’s nervousness when he’s stranded on Everest, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s facial reaction during the trippy New York chase, the beautifully silly vaudeville gag with Mads Mikkelsen (which Jesse David Fox went in depth on at Vulture). It’s even oddly reminiscent of “Beetlejuice” in places, when the astral projection scenes take over. Yes, there’s a certain uniformity of tone to these movies, but it’s a tone that works, and “Doctor Strange” tinkers with the ingredients just enough to make it feel fresh.
Marvel’s flirted with more out-there imagery and psychedelia before — the 70s prog-rock album cover imagery of “Thor,” the stand-out metaphysical sequence at the end of “Ant-Man” — but the scene in which the Ancient One punches Strange out of his body and sends him on a tour of the various dimensions marks a trippy new high for visuals in the macrofranchise. Filmed with the use of the same rig that Sandra Bullock was strapped into in “Gravity,” and presumably with the aid of a ton of mushrooms, it walks the line nicely between between gloriously weird, oddly terrifying (the part where his hands split into multiple tiny hands is very creepy) and being a little bit naff in a pleasing way. It’s the standout sequence of the film, a great way to reveal character and even exposition through visuals, while also being one of the strangest things we’ve seen in a mainstream movie in a long while.
The quality of the action sequences in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been decidedly variable, from the well-constructed beats and gags of the final battle in “The Avengers,” and the crunchy fights of the Russo Brothers’ “Captain America” movies, to the anonymous, repetitive robot-smash-em-ups of “Iron Man 3” and “Age Of Ultron.” Though director Scott Derrickson was somewhat unproven as an action director, he really knocks it out of the park here, with some of the most inventive and varied set-pieces of the MCU, and indeed in action cinema in general of late. From the opening London battle that shows off the world-bending power of sorcerers for the first time, to the New York sanctum fight, the astral projection brawl, the Escher-ish NYC chase and the finale (see below), there’s a consistent level of invention and ingenuity here, and Derrickson (and, presumably, his pre-viz team) always keeps the geography surprisingly clear, given the kaleidoscopic nature of some of these sequences. We’d wondered in advance if the “Inception” influence would feel too craven, but while Christopher Nolan definitely deserves a cut of the royalties (both for this and for the “Batman Begins” vibe of the mid-section), Derrickson builds on the earlier film rather than slavishly copying, and the results are truly exciting.
The time warp climax
People have patently gotten increasingly tired of the bigger-and-bigger, exploding airships climaxes that superhero movies seem to default to, and it’s notable that after “Avengers: Age Of Ultron,” which may have marked the zenith of this, the Marvel films have tended to go for more unconventional, quieter finales, in a way that’s proved mostly satisfying. “Doctor Strange” might have the best of these, not only subverting the ‘destruction porn’ that was so omnipresent (see below), but then letting our hero use his wits to win the day. When Strange first confronts Dormamu, we were a bit concerned — the villain (played, via motion-capture, by Cumberbatch himself) seems sort of generic, unpleasantly reminiscent of Galactus in “Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer” or the “Green Lantern” villain. But as the scene develops into a clever, brief “Groundhog Day” riff, and Strange allows himself to be killed again and again in an endless time loop that he’ll only release if Dormamu leaves Earth alone. It’s both genuinely unexpected and clever, feeling like something that the Steven Moffat-era “Doctor Who” would pull, and shows both a level of sacrifice for a character who’s changed a lot since we met him, and some of the film’s wit (it’s particularly well-edited too).
The best response to destruction porn yet
For a film that not many people like, “Man Of Steel” has had an enormous effect on the superhero movie going forward. Or more specifically, its collateral-damage-heavy, skyscraper smashing finale — ‘Age Of Ultron,’ “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” and “Captain America: Civil War” all to varying degrees feel a like direct response to the controversy that emerged after Superman’s callousness in that movie. “Doctor Strange” seems to be too, but it’s subtler and cleverer in some ways. The Hong Kong-set finale features, like others before it, a portal in the sky, smashed-down buildings and civilian casualties, with Strange and Mordo arriving after the battle has mostly been lost. But Strange’s gambit isn’t to have some massive fight that leads to even more destruction. It’s to literally undo everything that just happened, rewinding time with the Eye of Agamotto. And we then see the destruction literally being undone, buildings putting themselves back together and people returning to life. It’s a sort of statement of intent, and one that’s again thematically relevant, given Strange’s Hippocratic Oath, and felt oddly cheering put against the nihilism of some of these films.
Some of them are arguably over-qualified for their roles (see below), but there’s no denying that “Doctor Strange” has the best cast of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. We’d feared that Cumberbatch would be too close to his abrasive-but-brilliant geniuses of “Sherlock” and “The Imitation Game,” but while they’re in similar areas, he’s doing something different here — slightly softer, slightly more pleased with himself, more heroic. His physicality changes impressively across the film too, even if his accent remains wonky throughout. Any way around, it’s a confident and enjoyable turn that has us looking forward to his next appearance. Other characters fare less well in some respects (see below), but everyone’s still bringing their A-game: Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor bring a surprising lightness along with the gravitas, and do a lot to elevate their characters above types: Swinton makes the mentor unpredictable and mercurial, while Ejiofor makes Mordo a genuinely complex and conflicted character. Benedict Wong’s sort of a joy in his scenes, and while Mads Mikkelsen and Rachel McAdams get shorter shrift, they’re as watchable as ever here.
The nods to the wider MCU
It’s not always been the case — *side-eyes “Iron Man 2”* — but Kevin Feige and the Marvel machine have gotten pretty good at referencing the wider universe or setting up future possibilities without stopping the movie dead in its tracks. Mid-credits sequences aside (more on those in a minute), the revelation of the Eye of Agamotto as the fifth Infinity Stone is well-handled, and at least breaks up the idea that these things are always MacGuffins, as is the idea that using it will have consequences down the road, presumably alerting Thanos to its location. And other bits of world-building and world-connecting are nicely done, whether inserting the Avengers building into the NYC skyline, or Strange getting a phone call about, and turning down, an operation on Don Cheadle’s War Machine after his ‘Civil War’ injuries (though, to put our nerd hats on, it does open up some continuity questions — Strange is already on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s radars in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” but here he’s still without his powers after the events of ‘Civil War’). And at least there’s no scenes where Strange sits down and watches a bunch of video files introducing new characters.
“Doctor Strange” has some strong themes behind the magic
Not every Marvel movie is actually about something, or at least about something more substantial than, say, “the shrinking man wants to be a better dad.” But credit to Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill and (the uncredited) Dan Harmon for making sure that the “Doctor Strange” script is pretty rigorous when it comes to theme. Though Cumberbatch plays the arc well, the idea that it’s about a man breaking down his ego and rebuilding himself is perhaps not completely successful — he’s pretty arrogant at the end, just in a different way, and his path mirrors Tony Stark’s a little too closely. But as a film that talks about time and mortality, it’s well done, the conceit baked into the storytelling from fairly early on, and proving to be crucial to the ending in more ways than one. Derrickson’s very good as a director with visual motifs and metaphors, and from Strange’s watch obsession (which might not be subtle, but as his indicator of his feelings for McAdams’s character and as a metaphor for the way that he’ll eventually “crack” time, does feel a little ingenious) to the circles that fill the production design, it’s more effective than most Marvel movies at using its images to tell stories and bring out the theme.
The Ancient One’s death scene
One thing that has been become quite clear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that the stakes in each adventure never go so far as to kill any of the beloved characters in the franchise. This became painfully clear when Agent Coulson, presumed dead in “The Avengers,” was revived and shunted off to “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” however, it seems Kevin Feige and co. are open to bending that rule. Following an eye-popping battle with Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius in the New York City multiverse, Tilda Swinton’s The Ancient One falls horrifically back into the real world, slamming into the pavement. She’s rushed to the hospital, and as doctors work to save her life, the astral projections of The Ancient One and Doctor Strange meet on a balcony outside the building. What follows, in what is easily one of the best pieces of writing in MCU’s history, is a beautiful scene in which The Ancient One explains to Doctor Strange why after centuries of life, she’s now deciding to leave her corporal body and pass along to the next realm. It’s moving stuff, certainly aided by Swinton’s performance, but a narrative decision finally pushes Doctor Strange to accept what he has become, and the gifts and knowledge he has acquired. We can theorize about how The Ancient One might still manage to “survive” and work her way into the MCU through other realms later, but her loss is nonetheless affecting.