‘Doctor Strange’ Review: The MCU Enters New, Exciting Dimensions

Doctor Strange

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Doctor Strange is set to transport Marvel fans into a broader and more visually arresting world than ever. Here’s our (Spoiler-free!) review.

When Guardians of The Galaxy came along in 2014, some pundits thought it was a step too far for the ever-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe to make the trek into space opera (they were obviously wrong). Ant-Man was released a year later after a well-publicized, yet amicable, break-up between director Edgar Wright and Marvel/Disney’s creative counsel, and critics assumed that the tiny hero would be Marvel’s first mistake (which it wasn’t).

Now, after 14 financially successful and mostly well-received films, comes Doctor Strange—the latest in the evolving and shifting mosaic of superhero genres that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And what it offers is simple, amounting to the idea that yes, magic exists and is quite prominent in the continuity of the Marvel movies.

Should the realm of the mystical and magical in mainstream entertainment be left solely to those troublesome upstarts at Hogwarts? Hell no.

Doctor Strange is a phenomenal achievement, combining the tried and tested Marvel formula even your grandma probably finds endearing at this point with incredible visuals that bring Steve Ditko’s psychedelic imagery to life. Without a doubt, this film will be the frontrunner for VFX Oscar attention come awards season, and the post-production wizardry is only made better by how well they pulled the rest of the film off.

Marvel Comics became a runaway success in the 1960s because it introduced their take on the flawed hero. That is, three-dimensional characters who make mistakes just like the rest of us and spend the remainder of their lives trying to right the very wrongs they were complicit in. Stephen Strange is no different. He’s a gifted, yet tremendously arrogant neurosurgeon who begrudges the notion of saving one life when his research could save thousands, which is a pivot into utilitarianism we’re not really used to seeing much of in any superhero movie, let alone Marvel’s.

In lesser hands (excuse the pun), Strange could have been a loathsome lead, but like Robert Downey Jr.’s dramatic upswing as Tony Stark, Benedict Cumberbatch injects the would-be Sorcerer Supreme with a snarky charisma and charm that makes the iconic character all his own. Fans of Sherlock will no doubt unleash a chorus of “I told you so’s” after checking this one out, but Cumberbatch really does impress with his ability to play a lead that almost makes Stark seem less interesting. It’s no mistake that their origins and characteristics are very similar, thematically, and there’s little doubt Marvel is banking on Cumberbatch becoming their “it” actor after Downey Jr. eventually moves on or is replaced.

With pride comes the fall, and after Strange finds his hands shredded in a brutal, well-shot car accident, he exhausts all western medicine options to heal himself. He ultimately embarks on a quest that leads him to the Far East, where he falls under the tutelage of the mystic arts.

It’s here that Doctor Strange really steps its game up, when we meet The Ancient One (played by Tilda Swinton) and Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The assembled talent here is astonishing, as both Swinton and Ejiofor give the film their full effort, with Swinton in particular opening the film up with an epic action set piece that perfectly establishes her as a new MCU badass, complete with a fresh twist on the lore of this fan favorite character.

Leading up to the release, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and Doctor Strange director Scott Derickson promised imagery unlike anything ever seen before, and though the initial trailers set this up as an architectural nightmare akin to Inception, it’s hard to really grasp the final experience of Doctor Strange before seeing it for yourself. It’s even difficult to describe anything without being misleading, but the point is that the technical feats are truly masterful. Imagine a kaleidoscope crossed with MC Escher and a dose of psychotropics…and you’re probably halfway there.

Strangely, this is also one of the funnier entries in the MCU. The Doctor Strange reshoots with Dan Harmon (Community) apparently paid off, as there’s a slew of great quips, visual gags, and longer form jokes, all without feeling like territory that would undermine the serious aspects of the film. This is probably the most “laugh out loud” Marvel movie since Guardians of the Galaxy.

With the usual Marvel successes come the same frailties, and this is certainly the case when it comes to the villain, Kaecilius, played by Mads Mikkelsen. He’s quite underdeveloped, which is a shame as there are hints that his turn to the side of villainy was motivated by a dark tragedy that’s never properly explored. A bright side to his inclusion, though, is that it effectively sets up some intriguing development for Mordo over the next few Strange films.

Also lost in the shuffle is Rachel McAdams, who does a solid job with the very little she’s given as Christine Palmer. She has great chemistry with Cumberbatch, to be fair, but the character is quickly relegated to the fringes of the main story once the action gets going.

This amounts to a Hero’s Journey movie with little meat left for anything else audiences might want to grasp onto, such as memorable romantic interests and villains. This is a typical MCU problem that deserves some criticism for showing no signs of progress. And despite a tight script with great pacing, the ending feels a bit abrupt, as well.

Still, Scott Derickson and his team have created a visual masterpiece with a side order of heart. Doctor Strange is an excellent, even essential entry for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing a slew of new worlds and storytelling opportunities for longtime fans, while also providing a possible successor to the Phase 1 mainstays, like Iron Man. Check it out, and be sure to stick around for the post-credits teaser (as if you weren’t going to, already).

Rating: 8.5/10

Ben Holliday

Ben Holliday

Ben Holliday is a features writer and film critic for Heroic Hollywood,What Culture, Den of Geek and The London Economic. As a concept and comic...