Doctor Strange review: An origin story for people that love origin stories
I’ve had a long-running argument with friend of mine that began the day Marvel announced a Doctor Strange film. He argued that Marvel should skip Strange’s origin, maybe exploring it in flashbacks, while I argued that the character was too outside of the norm and too unknown for non-comic fans to easily accept. It turns out we were both kind of right.
Marvel’s latest introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe defies easy explanations in some ways, and yet in others it is painfully straightforward and familiar. It introduces us to a new facet of the MCU with magic, a new avenue for Marvel Studios to explore in future properties, but take that away and you’re left with a very traditional story of the birth of a hero.
Thankfully, Marvel has a lot of practice with origin stories. It’s a formula at this point, with mix and match elements. At this point, Marvel’s origin stories are beginning to feel a bit like a talented house band covering a great song. The band may be talented enough to make the song seem original, but underneath it’s still recycling an older tune.
Despite the magical powers that almost stand in opposition to the pseudo-science approach many of the other Marvel films offer, Doctor Strange is going to draw several similarities to 2008’s Iron Man. Like Tony Stark, Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) starts as an arrogant and vain man, too blinded by his own success to bother to grow as a person. As one of the world’s greatest surgeons, Strange is distant and self-involved until a car accident badly damages his hands, ending his surgical career.
While others might be grateful to still have their lives, Strange refuses to accept his new lot in life. After several unsuccessful and increasingly risky surgeries he follows a rumor that takes him to Kathmandu, and from there to a mystical teacher known only as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). With the help of her top student Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) shows the good Doctor that there are worlds beyond his perception and magical powers that can be wielded.
As Strange trains in his new vocation, a former student of the Ancient One named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) becomes a nihilist of sorts, and begins to serve an evil older than time. It’s actually a fairly nuanced take on a guy that wants to kill everyone, but ultimately it’s still a good guy versus a baddie.
So to surmise: exceptional guy learns a personal lesson while becoming a reluctant hero, fights a bad guy hell bent on killing a lot of people, and – spoiler – rises to the occasion. It’s paint by numbers hero assembly but it has all the trappings of a successful Marvel movie, from standout one-liners to an increasingly complex, connected universe to strong performances. Where it really excels, however, is the visuals.
Director Scott Derrickson has a background in horror. Those themes don’t translate to this movie, but the visuals do. Many of Derrickson’s previous films involved alternate realities where demons and monsters lurk. Doctor Strange spends a lot of time in alternative worlds that are best described as “trippy.” It’s also handled in a way that doesn’t assault the senses but compliments them.
Worlds turn upside down and inside out. Cities twist and flip. Doctor Strange is without question the most unique looking film in the MCU, and the film treats the magical aspect in the same way Ant-Man treated the sub-atomic realm. It’s magic, but it’s pseudo-magic. You don’t really need to know the rules, you just need to know the limits.
Doctor Strange is designed with the future in mind, which at some points sacrifices the present. Even with the best visuals and strong performances from Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams (as Strange’s beleaguered colleague and sometimes love interest), Mikkelsen, and Ejifor, there’s still the feeling that the movie is going though the motions in order to get on with it.
Doctor Strange flies through the introduction of the character, then gives us just enough training to make it acceptable that he is off fighting end-of-the-world level evil. This is where the film really feels like it is more interested in establishing the character than telling a good story. The training feels truncated and more like a mandatory addition than a natural progression of the character.
Strange is a novice, struggling to learn, then suddenly he is suddenly Billy Badass. That’s true of several of the Marvel characters – they are typically amazing at their super jobs fresh out of the box – but with the story highlighting that it takes knowledge and training to gain magical skills, having Strange somewhat bypass that feels like a cheat. If you’re going to do an origin story, do an origin story. Half measures never work, and with a character like Doctor Strange there’s a Netflix series worth of content that could come from his training.
The film exists to set up the character for future outings in the MCU, and it’s a good introduction – but that’s all it is, an introduction. If it weren’t part of a much bigger universe, Doctor Strange would be a generic, but visually impressive movie with a lot of missed potential. Since the story will continue, that instantly fades into the background though. If ever the Marvel machine benefited a movie, it is Doctor Strange.
Those reservations aside, Doctor Strange does what it needs to. There are some great fights, some funny moments, and characters – good, bad, and indifferent – that standout.
Doctor Strange review conclusion
Doctor Strange is something of an outlier compared to the last few Marvel films: it’s self-contained within a larger world. There are the odd references to other Marvel characters, but with only a few very minor changes to the dialogue, this film could be completely standalone. At this point, it would be nice to see more originality with new entries, but Marvel seems stuck on doing its due diligence and introducing new characters in a familiar way. It’s a proven formula, however, with built-in crowd-pleasing moments and a good hero to root for.
This film will in some ways tests how much you like the Marvel movies in general, because it checks all the boxes without adding much new – even with the introduction of the new field of magic that will play out over the next few years. So if you enjoy the formula that is present in Iron Man, Ant Man, and others to a degree, you’ll like Doctor Strange. Just don’t expect a lot more.
Doctor Strange is rated PG-13 with a running time of 130 minutes.