As well as having written for Marvel Comics in the recent past, I’ve been a Marvel Comics fan for as long as I can remember. My interest in their comic books has waned dramatically over the last couple of years, but I still have a soft spot for the company. One of my first memories of reading any kind of material was the first issue of Spider Man from Marvel UK in 1973. I was hooked, and the characters and stories became a huge part of my life for decades to come. This isn’t going to be a giant retrospective about Marvel Comics, but I couldn’t really start a review of Doctor Strange without a self-indulgent opening, right?
I don’t specifically recall Steve Ditko’s stories as my first introduction to the character – instead, I remember it being a Frank Brunner story where Strange met the hookah-smoking caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, years after it was published, in a battered copy of the American original, not a Marvel UK reprint. I’ve since become a huge fan of the Ditko stories, and now possess most of his run on the character, but I’ve never been much of a fan of the character himself. When I heard plans to fold him into the cinematic Marvel Universe, I was skeptical it would actually happen, given that the movie universe focuses so heavily on the secular world of science and technology. Then Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, The Imitation Game)was cast, and the rest is now history.
I am still very much a fan of the Marvel Studios movies – while many fanboys complain about the changes made, I guess I’ve always seen the movies as a kind of live action alternative universe version. Both DC and Marvel canons allow for their own “multiverses” that contain different versions of the established characters, so for a long-time reader, it’s no stretch to see the movies in this light. The multiverse concept itself actually is a small part of the cinematic Doctor Strange, which I’ll touch on more in a little bit.
If you don’t know the character, the origin story is this: a brilliant but arrogant surgeon loses the dexterity in his hands after a terrible injury. Seeking a cure, he follows rumours of mysterious healing powers to Tibet, where he eventually meets and becomes schooled in the mystic arts by a mystical guru/teacher The Ancient One, and quickly becomes Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme. The movie follows the basic beats of the comic book origin story, folding it into the story of his first big test, which naturally involves saving the world from destruction.
I have some deep problems with the movie story, I have to say. Written by Jon Spaihts (Prometheus), and Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill (both from the Insidious movies), the story just described suffers from the same malaise as many of the modern sci-fi/fantasy blockbusters: not only is the threat to the central hero big, it’s also big enough to threaten the Earth itself and must be stopped at all cost. It’s a trope I think many people are burnt out on. When the plot is so big that it takes small armies of CGI artists and digital compositors to tackle it, story takes a back seat to visuals, and the end result feels mechanical and perfunctory. Marvel has a double whammy, though – the origin movies of their characters are depressingly lazy: the hero simply fights a powerful mirror image of himself and discovers their place in the world in doing so. Iron Man v Iron Monger; Captain America v The Red Skull; Hulk v The Abomination; Ant Man v Yellowjacket. Now it’s Dr. Strange v Kaecilius, played by Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen. When people criticize the Marvel movies for being too formula, they’re on the money when it comes to the origin movies, but having said that, the subsequent movies in the series have stories that are more engaging – both Captain America sequels have been terrific movies, I thought, and I loved Iron Man 3. Thor: Ragnarok is shaping up to be a better movie than both its predecessors.
For me, Dr. Strange is a movie carried by the star power of Benedict Cumberbatch and its visuals. A note about those visuals, though. As heavily inspired from Inception as they are, they’re still great to watch – yet, at the same time, they overstay their welcome. There are too many scenes of buildings changing, extending, folding. While they look great, they don’t serve any particular story purpose. After a few scenes’ worth of this, I mostly grew tired of seeing them. The story doesn’t go far enough to require an evolution of the imagery. Same complaint with the character of Stephen Strange. In the Lee/Ditko origin story, Strange is a real asshole, utterly self-absorbed and misanthropic. Cumberbatch’s Strange is self absorbed, but not to the point where he’s actually unlikeable. He even has a cute little knack for music trivia to show that he might be a dick sometimes, but he’s not really that much of a dick. It’s weak. When Strange eventually makes it to Tibet, his eventual journey of self discovery doesn’t feel like the 180 degrees it should. This is the movie’s biggest failing for me. Marvel uses its familiar playbook to just gives us a weak story with a weak character arc. Cumberbatch is truly the star, though, and his casting shows Marvel Studios’ true strength: their ability to pick the right talent is uncanny. Cumberbatch is very engaging to watch, as is Chiwetel Eijofor and Rachel McAdam (impactful in a small role, I thought). Mikkelson too is a watchable, though underwritten villain. The only character I didn’t take to was Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One. I never was convinced by the character, or by her performance. Both are weak, and it’s the element of the movie I was most disappointed by. I’m conflicted about Act 3 – the supposed Big Bad of the movie is rendered terribly, in a scene that plays like a knockoff of Edge of Tomorrow and Groundhog Day, but just prior to that, the Hong Kong scene which features linearly progressing action, at the same time as a linearly regressing scene was something I found to be very engaging, and actually the high point of the movie.
And that multiverse concept? It’s mentioned throughout the movie, but the actual concept is left unexplored, and it’s deeply unsatisfying. It might yet be used well, but there’s nothing to it here. The concept alone could be the source of allowing new actors to come in to play Captain America and Iron Man when those big contracts expire, but it’s simply given lip service here – it annoyed the hell out of me to see it simply fall by the wayside.
As far as origin movies go, this is a bit more entertaining than others, but I’m still left with the sense of “Ok, now that we got this one out of the way …” The performances are a big part of why Dr. Strange gets a