Movie Review: Doctor Strange
By Matthew Huntley
November 14, 2016

Ah, the Christian Bale look.

It may seem “strange” (pun intended) to say so, but Doctor Strange is a movie that's easier to like than admire, at least on a narrative level. This is yet another superhero origin story from the seemingly bottomless Marvel Comics Universe canon that's perfectly well produced, directed and acted, which is probably why it's so likable. But as the latest notch on Hollywood's superhero whiteboard, it's also fairly routine and, as such, will no doubt become a formidable box-office hit and spawn several sequels and/or spin-offs. This has been the default pattern for movies of this type for years now and it's showing no signs of waning.

However, my interest in such movies is starting to wane, and while there is, indeed, plenty to like about Doctot Strange” I don't think it's right to recommend it just because it's a sound example of its genre. Yes, the special effects are exquisite - they're among some of the best I've seen in recent memory - and the actors are convincing and fitting in their respective roles, but at this point in time, the success of a Marvel superhero movie depends on how well it balances the familiar notes, which rarely change, and the new angles introduced by the plot and characters. And with Doctor Strange, I found the familiar outweighed the new by too great a margin.

The filmmakers are happy to keep it within the confines of a basic origin story, and part of me hopes Marvel simply foregoes this step for future superheroes. We've seen it done so many times and are so familiar with this world that we can easily put the pieces together for ourselves, without a formal introduction. Instead, the filmmakers should just use the characters in stories that are bolder, more daring and more interesting, where someone or something actually seems at risk and we're left to wonder how the various conflicts will resolve (Captain America: Civil War was a superb example of this approach). With Dr. Strange, I didn't wonder so much; things just sort of played out as I expected.

Maybe the reason for this is because Doctor Strange's qualities aren't all that novel. I'm sure there are other examples, but while watching this film, I couldn't help but see parallels between Strange's characteristics, conceived by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee in 1963, and Neo's from The Matrix, which arrived over 30 years later. Perhaps the makers of The Matrix, Andy and Larry Wachowski, drew inspiration from Ditko and Lee's character and based their hero on him. In any case, stories like Strange's have been filmed before.

Consider: both Doctor Strange and Neo live in a world where they think they know the truth but are actually unaware Earth's very existence hangs in the balance - in Doctor Strange's world, Earth is at the mercy of three sanctums, located in New York City, London and Hong Kong, and in Neo's, the planet is already a dystopia where only factions of humans remain. Strange and Neo also become students of masters with higher intellectual and physical power, who teach them “the ways of the force,” if you will, with Strange falling under the tutelage of the Ancient One, and Neo receiving guidance from Morpheus. The Ancient One is sorceress who's lived for an unknown amount of time and claims to “reorient the spirt,” while Morpheus reveals to Neo what the Matrix is and Neo's purpose within it. The Ancient One and Morpheus are themselves similar in that both teach their respective protégés how to practice the mystical and martial arts, and to utilize meditation, concentration and the freeing of the mind to manipulate their surroundings and control their enemies.

Eventually, both Strange and Neo face off against seemingly indomitable foes who have evil, selfish ambitions. Upon defeating them, they become protectors of Earth and its human inhabitants, with Strange keeping it safe from a powerful God named Dormammu, who resides in the Dark Dimension, and Neo fending off artificially intelligent machines.

The similarities between The Matrix and Doctor Strange underline what's preventing me from getting overly enthusiastic about the latter: it too closely mirrors others of its kind in terms of narrative, structure and execution. Even though Strange's story technically came out before Neo's, it was The Matrix that came out before Doctor Strange, and so it might have behooved the makers of “Strange” to add some news twists and ideas to the mix. Otherwise, it's simply treading paths we've already been down. As it is, Doctor Strange isn't bad, but it's also not inspired. I watched it with only mild excitement, but this being a superhero movie and all, I wanted a whole lot more.

Still, to emphasize some of the film's stronger points, Benedict Cumberbatch is funny and charming as the title character, a gifted yet arrogant neurosurgeon who loses the use of his hands after a near-fatal car accident. He's well matched by Tilda Swinton, who plays the Ancient One, Strange's mentor and leader of a band of mystics who keep the Earth in balance. The other key players include Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, another sorcerer and teacher for Strange; Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, Strange's nemesis who steals sacred passages from an ancient book in order to summon Dormammu and live in the Dark Dimension for all time; and Rachel McAdams as Christine, Strange's former lover and fellow surgeon. McAdams has a bit of a thankless role here as the superhero's token female love interest, but she nevertheless fills it nicely.

The most striking thing about Doctor Strange, though, is its incredible special effects, which give us shape-shifting buildings, otherworldly planes, characters flying through the air, etc. The movie's look and design are really quite wonderful and transport us to another world that lives by its own rules, the likes of which we haven't seen since, well, The Matrix.

But all of these great assets seem wasted on a startup story that I feel has been told too often in the mainstream superhero realm. The screenplay gives the special effects crew plenty of opportunities to be creative, and the actors develop their characters to make them distinct, but the movie's underlying narrative failed to put me in a long enough state of suspense or awe. We've reached a point now where even the best qualities of a superhero movie such as Doctor Strange aren't enough to compensate for its safe and routine plot, which, in a nutshell, follows Strange as he grows from ordinary man to extraordinary savior. I want this genre to progress narratively, not just technically, and that means the filmmakers have to be self-conscious about raising the stakes and giving their heroes something to do other than acclimate themselves to their powers and fight the bad guy. That may seem unfair to characters like Doctor Strange, who are just now making their debut, but that's how things have to be.

How do the filmmakers do this? In all honesty, I don't know, but maybe this is a sign Hollywood has exhausted its superheroes and should simply work with what it has in more creative ways. Doctor Strange will easily please its intended audience, but I wish it had worked harder at pleasing those of us who feel detached from the genre because of sheer repetition and need a really great story to lure us back in.