Doctor Strange (2016) — Comfortable Marvel weirdness

“We never lose our demons, Mordo. We only learn to live above them.”

Al’s rating: I like my Hosts of Hoggoth extra hoary. Sometimes I order a little extra on the side so I can dip ‘em.

Al’s review: Meet Stephen Strange — a man who has it all! He’s a famous surgeon who can pick and choose the patients he wants to work on. He’s wildly rich and living in a palatial apartment in the city. He’s a great driver.

Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Dr. Strange’s hands are irreparably shattered after a truly gnarly one-car accident, and, unable to imagine a life without his award-winning fingers, he wastes his fortune and the goodwill of his peers searching for anything that might help him become the man he once was. This eventually leads him to the gates of Kamar Taj and to The Ancient One, who open his eyes to the existence of magic and reluctantly agree to teach him their ways.

Soon — like, improbably soon — Strange rises through the ranks to become a gifted magic user. Just as quickly, he also begins reaching for deeper and more dangerous magic, much to the chagrin of Wong, the stone-faced librarian, and Mordo, the totally-not-gonna-turn-evil Head Boy. It reeks to them of Kaecilius, a former student who broke bad and is coincidently about to launch a magical assault upon the planet’s three Sanctums for his own selfish gains.

Will Strange bumble through some action sequences and become The Master of the Mystic Arts/humanity’s last hope against Kaecilius? Will he earn the grudging respect of Wong and the ire of Mordo? Will I realize I am several paragraphs into this review and have not yet gotten to type the phrase “Dread Dormammu,” so vow to find as many places as possible to squeeze it in? You bet your Dread Dormammu!

I was pretty sure Doctor Strange was going to be the MCU’s first big misstep. Originally, I was pretty sure their big mistake was going to be Thor, then I was pretty sure it was going to be Captain America: The First Avenger, then I was pretty sure they could never pull off The Avengers, and then I was pretty sure Guardians of the Galaxy was way too obscure to ever be successful. But introducing magic? Not “technology you don’t understand” but magic-magic? I was feeling pretty sure. Like pretty-pretty-pretty sure.

So, is Doctor Strange a disaster of Dread Dormammu proportions? Definitely not. I don’t like Stephen Strange as a character – the man lives to be a condescending, sarcastic ass and, damn it, that’s my job – but Benedict Cumberbatch is always entertaining and easily commands center stage.

B.D. Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor kill it as Wong and Mordo, and really play off the vibes the Cumberbatch is putting out. Tilda Swinton’s role as The Ancient One is two-dimensional, but she brings warmth and intelligence that are a nice counterpoint to Strange’s sourpuss. Rachel McAdams’s Christine Palmer… well, she gets out-acted by a sassy cape. Sorry, Rach. Loved you in Game Night!

Mads Mikkelson elevates bad guy wizard Kaecilius far beyond what is on the page, but, at the end of the day, he is still an MCU villain so there is an 80% chance you’re going to forget about him as soon as the credits roll. Mads does his best to get me invested, but I can’t take someone seriously who believes the best option is embrace The Dread Dormammu, god of The Dark Dimension. He grows pulsing grey crusties around his eyes and still fails to see a problem. Relatable, you ain’t.

So, Doctor Strange isn’t a catastrophe, and that’s a win. What it IS, though, is a Marvel Movie. These days, “Marvel Movie” has become a term loaded with both good and bad connotations, and I think this is the first time the MCU really exemplified that. We get one great sequence early in Doctor Strange, where Stephen trips out as the world turns into a spiral of hands and eyeballs, but the story never does anything quite that interesting ever again. The climax is also neat – I give it credit for doing something both visually and conceptually interesting – but it all just feels a little on-rails. This movie knows when to hit the high notes, when to be funny, and when to tell us that it’s being serious. None of it is bad, it’s just… comfortable. I’m sure that’s a good word to a studio launching an untested character, but I don’t think its what you shoot for when you are opening up a world like Doctor Strange’s.

The Doctor Strange we got is a good movie. It’s pleasant. It’s entertaining. It’s got an evil god named The Dread Dormammu. But there are opportunities for this corner of the MCU for something so much weirder and darker and crazier. That we landed in the kiddie pool version of this story feels like there was either a failure of vision or a failure of guts by the filmmakers. So, yes, Doctor Strange is easy to put on in the background while you do your Sunday chores, but that ultimately also means its kind of a shame. If you can alter the fundamental building blocks of the universe and I don’t have to stop folding my socks, then maybe it’s a little premature to call yourself “The Sorcerer Supreme.”

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