Review: Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange (2016)
Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton. Directed by Scott Derrickson.

Doctor Strange is the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe whose main character is completely unfamiliar to me, and I had very low expectations going in. I was pleasantly surprised by a visually interesting movie with a pretty cool soundtrack and an intriguing setup. Yet beyond technical considerations, it’s kind of a shallow, hollow experience much more interesting for the universe it explains than for the characters who inhabit it.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a world-famous neurological surgeon with a god complex, an ex-girlfriend who is also a neurosurgeon, a huge sparsely furnished condo in which he always looks lonely, and a very fast car. A car accident wrecks his hands beyond hope of true rehabilitation, so he seeks healing from a group of mystics in Kathmandu. He becomes a student of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and learns a bunch of New Age stuff explaining the invisible, mystical world existing alongside our physical world.

His brilliance and determination take him quickly through the material, and soon he is involved in an eternal struggle to keep the Dark Dimension from destroying the dimension in which he lives. Malicious ex-adherents to the Ancient One’s ways are determined to breach this dimension’s protections, and Strange must work with his fellow devotees to defend earth.

At first I was sure the mystical stuff was going to annoy me, but in the framework of a comic book movie, it works pretty well. It better explains the most comic-booky stuff than films like Wonder Woman and The Avengers. A nice set of movies could be built upon this origin story, which appears to set Strange up as the heir to the leader position now occupied by Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, although one wonders if Peter Quill might be the more charismatic frontman. Don’t tell me if you know.

I don’t fault this film for its lousy development of characters and backstory, as it has to expend a lot of time and energy on explaining this new way of looking at the universe before it gives us the main conflict. Captain America: The First Avenger could spend time with the backstory because all it had to do was plunk its hero into World War II and we had all the explanation we needed for the conflict. Or maybe the entire film was backstory.

So while I understand the difficult storytelling position it’s in, I can’t deny that the stuff most important to me—the stuff that makes these comic book movies interesting—is woefully lacking. There aren’t any great conversations between Strange and his beautiful ex (Rachel McAdams), and there’s no real explanation for the rivalry between Strange and another surgeon to whom he’s an a-hole, and maybe most importantly, there’s no development of Strange’s compulsion to get back to his work. Sure, we know ego has to play a huge part in it, but when Strange says, “Without my work, I’m nothing,” there’s really no resonance and we’re expected to just believe him.

The eyecandy and earcandy rescue the film, and it was fun to disengage my brain and just watch the visuals (literally) unfold over the cool score. Enjoyable but unsatisfying.


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