By Gavin Arucan | Staff Writer
“Doctor Strange” is Marvel’s latest comic to film adaptation; this time bringing the titular magic wielding superhero into the extensive Marvel Cinematic Universe. Through mind-blowing special effects and a strong performance by actor Benedict Cumberbatch, “Doctor Strange” tells the story of Dr. Stephen Strange’s exposure to reality-bending magic whilst seeking treatment for his job-destroying injury.
With dozens of comic book movies saturating the film industry over the last several years, “Doctor Strange” needed to go above and beyond to stand out from all the rest. While the film does stick to a standard fantastical action movie plot, it takes just enough unique twists and turns to do just that.
As mentioned before, the special effects may be the best the studio has put out, which is saying a lot considering the completely CGI fight scene in “Civil War” and the colorful worlds of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Nearly every scene is special effects heavy, but in a good way. Unlike some films like “The Phantom Menace”, the effects feel necessary for the visually beautiful realms that “Doctor Strange” introduces. The unnatural movements of buildings and the earth throughout the mystical action scenes actually feel very natural and flowing. During those scenes, there’s always something happening everywhere on the screen, but it’s not at all distracting. Every slight action leads to another that eventually brings out the effect as a whole. The attention to detail is incredible.
Of course, special effects can only get a movie so far. The heart of the movie lies in the emotion of the story and acting. For all the unique and refreshingly weird visuals, the basic plot of “Doctor Strange” is a bit too familiar. The movie starts off with an origin story of an arrogant protagonist going through a life-changing tragedy which leads to the hero learning about his newfound powers while becoming more humble until he inevitably faces off with the much more powerful villain and finds a clever way to defeat his foe. It’s basically “Iron Man” with magic.
Since Marvel announced that Doctor Strange was getting his own movie, I was excited for one reason: I didn’t know his origin story. I read my fair share of comic books, but my only exposure to the character of Doctor Strange was through “The Avengers” comic books. Even then he was always written out of the story because of his immense power, so while I knew of the Sorcerer Supreme, I didn’t know much about his history or powers. I thought I was finally going to a comic book movie in which I didn’t know what to expect, but sadly the trailers practically revealed the very basic plot points of the first act, including Strange’s accident and how he comes to discover his powers.
Even though the story is predictable, there are still some really great moments sprinkled throughout the film to make the plot feel fresh. I especially love the choice to keep the cinematography the same for Strange’s everyday activities before and after his life-altering accident. It’s a nice little touch that shows how devastating Strange’s injury is without any dialogue. The way in which Strange defeats the main villain is also a slight twist to the usual “just kill them” mentality that superheroes seem to have nowadays. Not only is it extremely clever, but it’s pretty hilarious as well.
Speaking of which, “Doctor Strange” has many of the comedic moments that Marvel films have become known for. It’s not the funniest of the Marvel portfolio, but the movie’s wit combined with inventive action sequences makes for a very fun movie that actually goes by relatively quickly. I realized that the movie was nearing its end, but it gave me such an enjoyable ride that I felt like it had only begun a short while before.
That enjoyability was in part to the top notch performances by Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton. Cumberbatch of course brings his dry British wit to the sarcastic and arrogant character of Stephen Strange, although I didn’t quite buy his American accent. There was a huge controversy over Swinton’s casting as the originally Asian Ancient One, however I think that if a white actress were to be cast in that role, it would have to be her. Swinton is the only actress strange enough to play the complicated magical monk.
Mads Mikkelsen plays the recurring villain of the film, Kaecilius, and, while his performance was very passionate, he is sadly another case of a dull, throwaway Marvel villain. After watching the movie, I’m not even sure what his objective as a villain was. In fact, I didn’t even know his name. He wasn’t downright terrible like most of the other Marvel villains such as Ultron, Ronan the Accuser, or whoever the bad guy was in “Thor: The Dark World.” I was emotionally invested in whatever it is Kaecilius was trying to do. He’s just more forgettable rather than a badly written character.
While the curse of the dull movie villain still remains, Marvel did step up its game in a department it has been slacking in for so long: the musical score. There’s a fantastic YouTube video by Every Frame a Painting that perfectly illustrates my problem with Marvel’s movie scores. With the exception of a few tracks, most Marvel scores are bland and played safe. I was immediately hopeful when I discovered that one of my favorite composers, Michael Giacchino, was scoring “Doctor Strange.” Giacchino has done phenomenal work on the scores for many Pixar and Disney movies. Some of my favorites include “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille,” “Up,” and “Inside Out.” To my relief, Giacchino’s score quickly became my favorite in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s one of the first Marvel tracks to take risks and steer away from simple, forgettable norm. I can only describe the music as a mix of “Sherlock” and “Harry Potter,” which I guess is fitting considering the Benedict Cumberbatch and magical elements. There are also some moments where the music sounds like it’s being played in reverse, which is a unique and memorable technique that elevated the strangest parts of the film.
Marvel has been taking strides to improve their films over the last few years. Standalone films like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and now “Doctor Strange” have allowed the studio to execute new, creative ideas in interesting and experimental ways. For a genre that’s become repetitive by now, Marvel is trying to raise the bar and be something different, and I have great respect for that. This new development might be because of the way Marvel’s president, Kevin Feige, restructured the studio under Disney’s ownership.
“Doctor Strange” is undoubtedly Marvel’s strangest film, and the upcoming roster of films looks even stranger. From unconventional director choices like Taika Waititi to the studio’s latest announcement that it’ll be focusing on smaller movies after the next “Avengers,” Marvel is proving that it isn’t afraid to shy away from unorthodox decisions anymore. If Marvel continues to take risks and try new things as they did with “Doctor Strange,” I’ll stay along for the ride all the way until the end.