Benedict “malapropism generator” Cumberbatch may be slightly overexposed, but he’s actually a great Doctor Strange! I didn’t need him to affect a American accent, but I guess he wanted to show he’s not just coasting on his Sherlock reputation. Sadly he never utters “By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!” It’s a missed opportunity for Marvel to subvert the white savior trope by casting someone that’s not a WASP, yet Cumberbatch still knocks it out of the park. His Dr. Stephen Strange is Marvel’s cockiest protagonist since
Iron Man Thor Star-Lord. Despite or because of his supreme arrogance, he’s always compelling if not necessarily likable. Cumberbatch definitely earns his starring role.
The special effects are superb. There’s plenty of Inception geography tessellation on steroids. Applying gravity to these shifts leads to some fun sight gag action. Other spells look generated from firecrackers & shards of molten glass. There’s a fight across the Astral Plane while both participant’s bodies are unconscious. The best scene is a psychedelic tour across dimensions. The plot may be cookie cutter, but the visuals are a feast for the eyes.
Now journey with me beyond the veil of the page break for movie spoilers, source material nitpicks, & social commentary!
Since Marvel had previously applied Clarke’s Law to magic in the Thor films, I was pleasantly surprised they didn’t try to over-rationalize magic with sciencey technobabble. The magic remains magical, unlike how Thor: The Dark World became a lesser prototype for Guardians of the Galaxy. It is awkward that most of the spells are linked to kung fu & tai chi to make the cultural appropriation subtext even stronger. (In the comics, this was mitigated by having multiple cultures practice magic instead of exclusively consolidating it to an Asian monastery.)
The sentient Cloak of Levitation was adorable. I would’ve liked it even more if it retained the impractically large collar & ostentatious gold trim from the comics. Teleporting brass knuckles come standard at Kamar-Taj, but there’s no magical security to keep ambitious mages from teleporting texts of arcane power out of the library? The Eye of Agamotto is made into the Time Gem. It acts like a Time Turner, but is put to better use than allowing Hermione Grainger to overload on course credits. This may be the closest we’ll get to Sherlock Holmes as a Time Lord outside of those Peter Cushing movies.
I was excited when I heard Tilda Swinton was cast in the movie. She’s the spitting image of Nightmare or could voice a terrifying Dormammu. Unfortunately they cast her as the Ancient One. Genderbending the stereotypical Ancient One was a wise move that’s canceled out by whitewashing. Couldn’t they have gotten someone like Michelle Yeoh instead? The movie insists it’s not whitewashing because this Ancient One is definitely Celtic, but then why is she teaching magic in Kathmandu instead of Hogwarts (aside from WB having the Harry Potter rights)? Kevin Feige’s weak justification that she’s merely the latest in a long line of Ancient Ones didn’t make it into the final cut. Swinton’s usual ethereal magnetism is absent in an uneven role where she mostly spouts New Age platitudes.
Comics Wong is probably more controversial than both the Mandarin & the Ancient One because he’s Dr. Strange’s manservant. Supposedly he was so problematic he wasn’t going to be in the movie (he wasn’t cast until late in production) until fans complained about the whitewashing. “See, we’re not racist!” says Marvel Studios. “We have one Asian character with a name & speaking part when we could’ve had two!” Movie Wong got upgraded to a librarian! I like those people! Benedict Wong imbues Wong with enough unique gruffness to make this bit part stand out. Why couldn’t all the supporting characters have this much personality? Ironically the character that could’ve been the most racist caricature became the MCU’s best Asian representation outside of Agents of SHIELD. That’s unfortunately by default, but at least he’s not Yellow Peril like The Hand. (Nico Minoru’s mom has a cameo with the Staff of One, but she looks quite young given that Hulu is going to make a Runaways series soon.)
As the obligatory frustrated love interest, Rachel McAdams should’ve been Clea instead of Dr. Christine Palmer. It’s not a tough choice between a human doctor & an extradimensional witch with nifty hair & fashion. Christine exists to do surgery & be treated like dirt by Strange yet seems more tangential. McAdams does well within the limits of this thankless role, but it definitely felt like her talents were being squandered as a bystander when she could’ve had a meatier role that expands the magic mythology. I guess they maxed out on this movie’s allotment for superpowered women with the Ancient One.
Karl Amadeus Mordo (who lost his barony along with Helmut Zemo) is the film’s literal magical Negro (as is Brother Voodoo’s ill-fated brother). His Staff of The Living Tribunal is not as formidable as you’d expect an artifact named for Marvel’s second most powerful being. If they got Cumberbatch to do a gravelly American accent, Chiwetel Ejiofor should’ve done a Transylvanian accent for authenticity. For some reason he doesn’t realize that sorcery is tampering with the forces of nature until after magic saves the Earth. The stinger shows him becoming a serial killer of sorcerers because he now thinks letting people wield magic is bad. Introducing Mordo as an ally first was supposed to give him more nuance upon his heel turn, but he was written so opaque I didn’t get a handle on his personality & he doesn’t bond with Strange either.
Marvel has plenty of quality villains so I don’t understand why so many of its movie foes come off as afterthoughts. Mads Mikkelsen’s great Danish accent elevates another woefully underwritten foe. (If Fox ever gets its act together, he needs to star in a Doctor Doom film where he puts the accursed Fantastic Four out of our misery!) My favorite scene is when the Cloak of Levitation binds him for a Hannibal homage plus monologue. His character, Kaecilius, is an obscure henchman of Baron Mordo in the comics. He’s given his master’s comic book traits, so I don’t understand why they wasted time on Kaecilius instead of just making Baron Mordo the villain from the outset. Kaecilius & his zealots might’ve been transformed into emaciated versions of Dormammu’s Mindless Ones at the end, so maybe Mikkelsen can return in a non-speaking role in future films.
The dread Dormammu of the Dark Dimension is damned disappointing. For starters, he’s missing his iconic fiery face. The segment of Dormammu murdering Dr. Strange (the same actor plays both to be meta) repeatedly was hilarious & reminded me of a couple montages of Batman being slain on Batman: The Brave & The Bold! It’s underwhelming, however, that he grows so bored of this that he agrees to forswear conquering our dimension. He doesn’t feel like a looming nigh-insurmountable adversary if Strange outwits him so quickly. Since everything Marvel is automatically a trilogy (except Incredible Hulk because Disney doesn’t share distribution money unless the character is as profitable as Spider-Man), Strange shouldn’t even have fought Dormammu directly until the third film to preserve his menace.
The film has the weirdest doctor-shaming since Saw. Neurosurgeon Strange looks down upon ER doctors (in part because he’s secretly afraid of failing patients in crisis situations). Then the Ancient One says sorcerers are way more important than surgeons. Strange was monstrously egotistical as a doctor, but he did do excellent work. Why can’t Dr. Strange magically heal his hands so he can pioneer medical procedures in-between fending off mystical threats? One humanizing bit of character work is when Strange is upset about killing one of Kaecilius’s zealots in self defense because it violates his Hippocratic Oath. The night of his fateful car accident, there’s a cute reference to the colonel that broke his back in Justin Hammer’s knockoff armor in Iron Man 2. If you misinterpret it as a reference to War Machine in Captain America: Civil War, Strange goes through multiple hand operations & becomes the de facto Sorcerer Supreme in under a year!
The double-edged sword for Marvel Studios is that Iron Man was so successful that it never had to innovate its winning formula. We get another proud privileged protagonist who learns heroism through humility. (Captain America was the humble outlier who learned arrogance later on.) He fights an underwritten evil version of himself. He has an unsatisfying romance with an exasperated non-powered female. Stan Lee mugs for a cameo to break your suspension of disbelief. The white hero has at least one minority friend who’s conspicuous because of how alabaster the surrounding film is. A bit too much time is spent establishing the lead’s pre-heroic life. The climax has a portal or massive energy burst. The plot device turns out to be an Infinity Stone. You’ll miss scenes if you leave as soon as credits roll. Some of these are consequences of Stan Lee not differentiating characters enough while he was churning out multiple books at once, but it still feels like the filmmakers are afraid of tinkering with what’s proven to work. Contrariwise, DC’s cinematic universe does riskier things because they somehow haven’t figured out a winning formula yet, despite making plenty of wonderful cartoons & live action TV shows. Of course most of those gambits haven’t paid off, but you can’t accuse DC of playing it safe. Hopefully Marvel can do fresher stories with Black Panther & Captain Marvel.
Interestingly, Doctor Strange sometimes feels like a superior remake of Green Lantern. Both star a smug jerk with a heart of gold that gets cool-looking energy manipulation powers from a bald dying master’s artifacts. He manages to be better at using these powers than everybody else in the exotic order-protecting clan he becomes inducted into despite his inexperience. His love interest is in the same civilian profession but would be more engaging with her own superpowers. The villain is a character that nobody was excited to see onscreen. He’s the servant of a force of poorly designed cosmic evil that gets defeated like a chump by the rookie hero. The hero’s upstanding colleague suddenly becomes a villain in the after credits scene just because they’re the hero’s arch-nemesis in the comics. Theoretically Green Lantern should’ve been as entertaining as Doctor Strange but it wasn’t executed as well.
My diagnosis of Doctor Strange is that it’s a fun visual spectacle with some strong acting that’s afflicted with racist undertones & being chronically formulaic. If you’re not deathly allergic to those caveats, make an appointment to experience it on the big screen.