Tell me if you recognize this story from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
A brilliant, snarky, assholish rich person with amazing skills strides through life blandly, confident that he knows everything, and often can back up his reputation with cold hard skills and knowledge. He is an endless deadpan snarker, always ready with a cutting jape or a quip for friend and rival alike. He has a long-suffering quasi love interest who clearly deserves better. We get to see him in his glory before an accident brings him low and nearly kills it. Worse, it doesn’t kill him, but gives him a permanent debility, changing his future plans forever. Said asshole learns to be better slowly and painfully in a period of retrenchment and regrowth, becoming a superhero in the process, and defrosting the heart of his love interest a bit whilst in the middle of battling the big baddie.
I could be describing Iron Man, but I am also describing Doctor Strange, and that is the core of one of the problems I found with the 2016 Marvel Cinematic Universe story. For all of its faults, and for all of its joys, Doctor Strange is a story we’ve seen before, and in a tone and mode we’ve seen before. Its yet another origin story movie for the MCU and unlike, say, Ant-Man, it follows way too familiar beats in that origin story.
The change from the Tibetan origins of Strange’s powers in the movie, I think, weakens it too. While I understand realpolitik as reasons why the setting gets changed from Tibet to Nepal, and the Ancient One changed to a “Celtic” Tilda Swinton (and she IS a fabulous actress in this, the person clearly having the most fun with her role), it does miss some opportunities in casting ,setting, and character choice thereby. The movie does try to balance things by having Mordo be played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, but the movie still feels like it misstepped with these alterations. And Ejiofor’s character only really gets some juice, and the actor gets his “A” game on in the last portion of the movie. Too, I would have liked to have seen more of Benedict Wong as the librarian, especially given his excellent work as Kublai Khan in Marco Polo. He was badly under-utilized.
There are some other things that bothered me, too, besides the whitewashing. You’ve already gone in for changes on the background of the character, so having Cumberbatch saddle himself with an American accent is, I think, a mistake. His normal British accent is distinctive, strong and one of his best features, and so taking it off the table is missing a bet. Too, I think having Rachel McAdams, she who embodies the love interest in modern cinema, is a coup as Christine-but giving her more to do would have been sorely welcome. Really, you could have made Christine Strange’s mother’s sister’s niece’s cousin’s former roommate and it would have not been any real change to the story. Mads Mikkelsen as the baddie, I am afraid I was distracted by the CGI around his eyes to really get a hook on his role and acting.
So what did the movie get right?
The gonzo nature of Strange’s multiverse is explained and depicted in a way we haven’t really seen before in film. We get Inceptiony type stuff, we get Ditko-esque type stuff, and we get visions and locations that defy description and characterization. I saw the movie in 2D and it looks absolutely gorgeous and the movie knows it. Better, the editing and cinematography are done excellently. There are plenty of fight scenes but we always can tell who is doing what to whom, even if it is a lot of CGI stuff. That CGI is rendered well, so that we can see the forms of spells, of astral projection, of Portals, and it all looks crisp and sharp. I would have love to have been able to freeze frame the spells and get a *real* look at what the sigils looked like. The movie does seem afraid to go too long without pulling another visual rabbit out of its hat, but that goes part and parcel with films like this, and for this movie, it works.
For the changes mentioned above, there are a ton of touchpoints to the comics story of Dr. Strange that I appreciated. From characters to magic items, the script knows its roots and honors them fully, and after the movie, I explained a few things to my movie buddy, who isn’t as deep into Marvel comics as I am (I’ve done this before for him.). I think I even saw the face of the Watcher at one point in the film, but I’d want to see it again to make sure. There is a Stan Lee cameo, of course.
As opposed to the comics, the bindings to the MCU movies we’ve seen before are lighter, and sometimes seem a bit shoehorned in just to make viewers assured this IS a movie set in that world. There is a possible, oblique reference to Rhodey, too oblique, I think. There is a more explicit Avengers tag, a throwaway line about an Infinity Stone. All of these are overshadowed by a credit cookie which I will not spoil–save that it definitely binds the movie into the MCU at that point. But other than that…the rest of the MCU really doesn’t exist as far as this movie is concerned. I suppose that someone who has not seen any of the Marvel movies could, in fact, “Start here” without any trouble.
So, is it worth seeing? Although it is a cookie cutter template of an origin story, has problems with its whitewashing and has uneven results in the casting and roles, my attention never wandered and I was always entertained. The movie tries sometimes too hard with its humor, and even makes a joke about that within the movie! Sometimes the movie’s tonal shifts need work, but its shift, not out and out whiplash–this movie was a bit inspired by Ant-Man in terms of those tonal gears. And the movie gets more confident with what it’s doing as it progresses, it finishes much better than it starts. The endgame for the movie, what the villain is doing, and what the hero is doing to stop him, is straight up, clear and makes sense. (Again, a tip of the nod for the scriptwriters for that).
When the movie really goes for the eye-popping visuals, I was astonished. We live in a world and era where the very over the top weirdness of Dr. Strange’s world can be depicted on screen beautifully and appealingly, and the movie holds nothing back in that regard. Most of the violence is non-bloody CGI based, although there is a beheading at one point, and a number of scenes in surgery (quelle surprise). The CGI based violence does make it more kid friendly in some ways.
Oh and I have plenty of stuff I can borrow from this movie for various roleplaying games, too, and I will be happy to do that, too.
So, let me put Doctor Strange in my personal ranking of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, since I have seen them all to date. I do move movies up and down this list some, but this is how it stands as of 11/5/2016, best to worst:
Iron Man I
Captain America: the Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
—Threshold of Awesome–
Captain America: Civil War
Iron Man III
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man II