Doctor Strange – A (mostly) spoiler-free review

The latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange, has finally arrived worldwide. For me, this was the movie I was most looking forward to — Doctor Strange is one of my favorite Marvel characters, and I was really interested to see how Marvel handled the introduction of magic to their universe. Would they be able to put together a movie so different from their previous movies, and pull it off? Would they chicken out on the whole concept of magic, like they did with Scarlet Witch? Would we just get more of Thor‘s “its not magic, it’s science”?

In the end, I wasn’t disappointed, I was satisfied, but I wasn’t exactly blown away. Doctor Strange is a good, solid, entertaining movie, and it handles the subject matter very well. But when you stack this movie up against the rest of the MCU, it’s going to suffer a bit. I think that’s an unfortunate but inevitable comparison, because the movie is a great movie on its own merits, but Marvel’s raising our expectations pretty high lately, so it’s going to happen.

I give this movie a 8/10To see why, and to see exactly how Doctor Strange stacks up against it’s siblings, and why you really should go see it, keep reading. (Warning: I’ll keep the spoilers to a minimum, but there’s a few things that will come up as we go along.)

There was a whole lot to like about this movie, especially taken on it’s own. And it’s pretty easy to watch this movie in isolation: there’s a handful of minor references to the broader MCU, but ultimately none of those things matter to the movie. It was very reminiscent of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s involvement in the early Phase 1 movies: these references tie the movie into the shared universe but it doesn’t rely on them. But by the end, we can clearly see where Doctor Strange is going to fit into the future movies. (We see hints of Thor: Ragnarok, Infinity War, and Doctor Strange 2 in the last few minutes, so be sure to stay for both post-credit scenes.) If this is your first MCU movie, you won’t be confused at all, but if (like me) you went to see the MCU expand, you won’t be disappointed there either.

Overall, this was a good fantasy/magic action movie, one that takes itself just seriously enough that the magic never seems hokey or corny. This is a big problem with these kind of movies, by the way: too often, you get movies where the actors can’t handle the fantasy material, or where they overcompensate for the absurdity (looking at you, He-Man movie). This movie his the balance just right …mostly. There’s a rare stumble along the way, particularly when Strange’s cloak makes it’s appearance. There were moments when I felt like I was suddenly watching a Harry Potter movie, but they were few and brief. It’s clear they were trying to build some comic relief into the movie but they probably shouldn’t have bothered, as it didn’t really work. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t do the movie any favors. Fortunately, the rest of the movie was good enough to make up for it. The magic is otherwise worked seamlessly into the plot. We just take for granted that this is how the world works. Maybe it’s just me, but this was my biggest fear for this movie: that the magic would come off badly. If nothing else, I give this movie a thumbs up for pulling it off.

Strange’s character arc was very well done, given where he started and where he needed to go. He initially acts incredulous about magic, exactly the same way you’d expect a trained surgeon to feel about pseudo-science. But once proven wrong, and he begins training, he takes his magic seriously. He dives into magic with the same dedication and purpose that he once dove into medical school, and it shows. And although, by the end of the movie, he’s still not quite a Sorcerer Supreme, it’s clear from his progress that he’s going to get there.

The supporting characters are strong as well. Mordo, in particular, gets his own very powerful story arc, starting out as the ultra-dedicated follower of the Ancient One and becoming, by the end, the classic Doctor Strange villain we all expected. The casting of the Ancient One, too, was perfect. There was a lot of political shenanigans involved here (the Ancient One is from Nepal, not Tibet, to avoid screwing up their Chinese release), but Tilda Swinton is pretty much awesome in everything she does, and this was no exception.  The same goes for Mads Mikkelsen, playing b-level Strange villain Kaecilius with exactly the right level of creepy and arrogant. (If anything, it was almost too bad they wasted him in a one-off role.)

And finally, it probably goes without saying that the visuals were spectacular. After the debacle that was the Quantum Realm in Ant-Man, I was skeptical, but this was definitely a hit. The Inception-like visuals we see from the trailer made complete sense in-context, and the graphics artists showed us a number of different dimensions, each with it’s own look and feel, ranging from the benign to the trippy to the downright creepy (seeing Strange get consumed by a ball of his own hands was an interesting visual). And we spend a lot of time in these other realms, including a fight scene in the mirror world that was mind-blowing. (By the way, if you have the chance definitely see this in 3-D.)

My only real complaints about the movie were small, but they did leave me feeling a bit disappointed. For one, it felt a little bit rushed. This was one of the shortest movies in the Marvel lineup (I believe it tied with Thor), and it sort-of shows. The movie doesn’t show us very much of Strange’s actual magical education — he seems to get incredibly good incredibly fast, even for a genius. We know the movie takes place between Civil War and Ragkarok but that’s not a very long time for someone to become a master sorcerer.

The other let-down was that this movie didn’t have that one huge “big pop” moment (to steal a wrestling term). The scene in the movie where you could rewind it and watch it again over and over. Most of the other MCU movies have one: Scarlet Witch blasting through the door and taking out a half-dozen Ultrons; Hulk punching a Chitauri whale in the face and watching it collapse. Thor, lying dead on the dirt, thrusting his hand in the air and grabbing Mjolnir. Peter Quill reaching out to grab Gamora’s hand as he struggles with the Power Stone. Usually, as soon as a walk out of a MCU movie, I want to go back and watch it again just for that one scene. Ultimately, Doctor Strange just didn’t have any such moment. (I will probably go back again, anyway, but I didn’t immediately go home and buy a ticket.)

In the end, this is a solid movie that does a great job introducing a new character, and a whole new aspect of the universe, into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s fast paced, well written, with an awesome cast, and it slots itself nicely into the shared timeline without much effort. But as much as a really wanted to love this movie (magic is my jam) it just didn’t excite me quite to the level of the Captain America: Civil War or Guardians of the Galaxy level. I’m not sure where I’d rank this in the list of MCU movies, but it’s probably somewhere in the bottom 1/3. But keep in mind, every MCU movie so far has been a home run — Marvel has yet to make a mediocre one, let alone a bad one, so Doctor Strange had some tough competition to live up to and, while it may not have outdone it’s siblings, it more than held it’s own.

8/10. See it, in 3-D, maybe even twice.

 

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