Movie Review: Doctor Strange

By Matthew Huntley

November 14, 2016

Ah, the Christian Bale look.

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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.

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