Doctor Strange is a film full of contradictions. On one hand, it is bold, fresh, imaginative, and a truly inspired work of, not just superhero, but blockbuster filmmaking in general. But on the other hand, the storytelling is as basic and generic as can be. In many ways, it’s business as usual for a Marvel Studios production, but like most of Marvel’s outings, even the weaker elements are still totally functional and serve a greater purpose.
Yes, the villain is nothing to write home about. Yes, the main thrust of Doctor Strange’s arc is maybe a little too similar to that of Tony Stark in the first Iron Man. Yes, on top of being standard Marvel fare, it is yet another origin story, thus following beats that you could call a mile away. Yes, some of the supporting characters are somewhat flat and superfluous. Yes, the need for all these superhero movies to be “action movies” does occasionally get in the way of smooth character building and storytelling.
However, it’s a testament to the people involved that they’re able to take the assembly line-like filmmaking that Marvel Studios has been riding on for over a decade and still make it feel like you’re seeing things you’ve never seen before. It’s why you get actors like Mads Mikkelsen to play your throwaway villain, or Rachel McAdams as the love interest, because the lack of nuance on paper can be helped with smart casting and that is something Marvel has excelled with over the years. The same goes for our titular hero, Doctor Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who does a really good job of embodying the role. It’s not a huge stretch for him, but that allows for a sense of confidence that works really well for the character. And there is a lot of solid character work throughout the film, some of the best moments being the ones where he is simply talking to the people in his life like Christine (Rachel McAdams), an old fling and co-worker, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a new friend who is helping him get used to the otherworldly elements around him, or the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), the master who has taken upon herself to train Doctor Strange in the mystic arts after he comes to her to heal his hands.
As generic as Doctor Strange might be, it still works overall. All the individual pieces are functional within the greater context of the story, if for any other reason than director Scott Derrickson and his co-writers, C. Robert Cargill and Jon Spaihts, have a clear passion for the surreal and out-there elements of the source material, and it’s in moments where they really indulge themselves that the film really shines.
Doctor Strange manages to accomplish something that I thought was impossible in this day and age of pre-viz driven tentpole filmmaking, and that is bring a genuine sense of awe to CG spectacle. Nowadays, people will go out of their way to praise a film for utilizing practical effects with films like Mad Max: Fury Road or anything from Christopher Nolan like his latest film, Interstellar. And we’re also quick to dismiss the hard work that goes into creating purely computer generated imagery, and it’s mostly because we are almost always seeing the same thing. We see destruction, we see large battles, or tech that is far beyond our time, and after a while, it doesn’t seem as impressive anymore. For the first time in a long time, I found myself with my jaw dropping at the wonderfully weird and psychedelic imagery that feel ripped out of Steve Ditko’s artwork. It pretty much single-handedly pushes the film into one of the better superhero films in recent memory.
One of the most talked about things regarding Doctor Strange is the whitewashing exemplified by the casting of Tilda Swinton as a character that has been represented by an Asian male in the comics. If you’re hoping the film would do something to maybe transcend those criticisms, then you’re out of luck. As great as Tilda Swinton is in the role, there’s a general uncomfortableness to her being there that the film isn’t able to get away from. It doesn’t help that for a film that borrows so many things from Eastern philosophy, there is really only one major Asian character, Wong (Benedict Wong), the man in charge of the the Ancient One’s library. It’s admittedly more significant than his comic book counterpart, which is basically Doctor Strange’s servant, but the role has no meat to it and it starts on a bafflingly tone-deaf note when we are introduced to him on screen by Doctor Strange making a joke about his name. Other Asian cast members are simply reduced to being extras, mere window dressing to a story that exploits and fetishizes their culture for the sake of popcorn entertainment.
As damning my complaints or as backhanded some of my compliments may seem, I did actually have a really great time with Doctor Strange. I should note that it is possible to like and enjoy something, while still being critical of certain elements. And as much as I enjoyed Doctor Strange, I still think it’s important to discuss orientalism and the lack of opportunities for Asians in American pop culture. It’s less the fault of the film itself and more it being yet another example of a result that comes from a deeply flawed system that has generally limits roles for Asians (and people of color in general) both in front of and behind the camera. For most viewers, this will (unfortunately) not even cross their minds. And it is unfortunate that these issues are surrounding an otherwise harmlessly fun and engaging superhero film (though, you should expect the same conversation to pop up once Iron Fist starts playing on Netflix come next spring).
Briefly putting that baggage aside, Doctor Strange is a very worthy addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Benedict Cumberbatch fits the role like a glove, the action is inventive (if occasionally over-edited), the way they turned the Cloak of Levitation into an Aladdin’s magic carpet-esque side character is a stroke of genius, Michael Giacchino’s score is best music in the MCU thus far, and I simply cannot overstate how incredible the final confrontation in the film is (at the risk of getting slightly spoilery – don’t worry, I’ll be very vague – Doctor Strange essentially annoys the villain into submission). Even within its generic frame, the film does have spark of ingenuity and cleverness, aside from the mind-bending, effect-heavy showstoppers, which is in and of itself worth the price of an IMAX admission. Plus, it has Scott Adkins in it, and that’s just plain awesome. 80/100