Matt at the Movies: Doctor Strange
We're now eight years and fourteen movies deep into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and if Marvel Studios' new intro reel is any indication, they're certainly not going away anytime soon.
It feels reminiscent of the old intro to Disney Sunday Movie Night, making Marvel feel like a long-running, well-established media dynasty. Which, at this point, is more than fair. The new intro premiered with Doctor Strange, Marvel's fourteenth entry into its shared film universe. Watching Doctor Strange, I was again reminded of the amazing feat Marvel has managed to pull off here: making fourteen box office and critical successes whilst having them make sense not only alone but together is a cinematic, well, marvel. Watching it all unfold reminds me of the excitement over The Lord of the Rings films; we are truly a part of something unique here.
On the flip side, however, in some sense Marvel seems to be on autopilot, at least with its singular origin stories like Doctor Strange. While Doctor Strange is noteworthy for introducing a new branch of the MCU involving multiverses and magic, which opens up vast new realms of possibilities for storytelling, it's also hard not to see the formula underneath it all. I'll start with the similarities in Doctor Strange before getting into what makes it different.
Doctor Strange is an origin story, with all of the familiar trappings thereof. A somewhat self-possessed and clueless man discovers superpowers exist and learns to put others before himself to become a hero. In this case, said man is Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) a brilliant and egotistical neurosurgeon who picks and chooses his patients based on whether they will turn into a success story for him. He works at a prominent New York hospital with former flame Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). When a terrible car crash almost kills him and ruins his hands, leaving him unable to perform surgery, Strange becomes obsessed with finding a way to repair his career. This leads him to Nepal, where he encounters a mysterious figured called The Ancient Once (Tilda Swinton), a sorcerer who can supposedly cure any ailment. Instead, she teaches him the ways of the sorcerers, who protect Earth from mystical threats from other dimensions in the same way the Avengers protect it from physical threats.
Nothing about this is really new. Strange struggles to control his power at first, before finding out that he has a natural ability for it, and eventually learns to care about more than just himself as he makes the ultimate sacrifice, yadda yadda yadda. Except here, rather than another sorcerer or a supervillain, the ultimate threat is a world-devouring being called Dormammu who wants to eat the Earth or something. So while the stakes are just getting larger and larger in the MCU, the basic story underneath it all remains the same.
What sets Doctor Strange apart is its world-twisting magic, and its introduction of parallel universes. The sorcerers can twist the world upside down like Inception, or make the streets of New York City feel like an MC Escher painting. The effects are truly stunning, and I bet they are even more stunning in 3D. The idea of multiverse also surely opens up the possibility of new threats and villains for the Avengers to battle in the future. While the familiar Marvel lightness and humor is on display as well, particularly in the guise of a Cloak of Levitation that has a mind of its own, overall this film is darker and more brooding than other Marvel outings.
For the most part, this is due to Cumberbatch's Strange. While there are hints of his hubris, he never reaches the gleeful, quippy heights of Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark. When he does crack a joke, it feels out of place. His performance is measured and controlled, but there are also times when I felt I could hear him struggling to maintain his American accent. It's also disappointing to see how little McAdams was given to do, as one of the most successful and lucrative box office stars, she is relegated to little more than a footnote in Strange's larger narrative. I, for one, feel the time is more than ripe for Captain Marvel and other female heroes.
Doctor Strange may be nothing novel in the story development department, but it's still worth catching, especially if you're someone who enjoys seeing how the larger Marvel universe is unfolding. It does feel a bit like these solo origin stories are getting a bit stale, and I think that the more interesting stories are going to start being told in crossover films, like Captain America: Civil War, or the upcoming Thor: Ragnorak, in which both Doctor Strange and The Hulk will be joining Thor on a quest to find Odin.
Doctor Strange is now playing in theaters nationwide.