Movie Review - Doctor Strange (2016)
I’ll get this part out of the way rather quickly. If you’ve enjoyed the ‘Marvel Formula’ up to this point, you’ll enjoy Doctor Strange immensely. Brilliant but arrogant person (in this case, one neurosurgeon named Stephen Strange) falls from grace and is reforged into a hero…once again, in this case via the mystic arts as opposed to technology. You see what I’m going here? Because, yeah, it is very much the same story arc as Iron Man. That being said, there are some amazing visuals here that really are worth the price of admission alone. Everything that’s come standard with Marvel films: the two-dimensional villain, the underused or weak romantic interest, consistent comedic beats…they’re all here. But if you’re looking for something different, you’re going to come out of this one disappointed. And that’s where my mixed feelings about the film come into play.
If you look at Doctor Strange as a character, he inhabits a very specific spot in the Marvel Universe. As Sorcerer Supreme, Strange is charged with protecting the world from unseen, yet just as sinister, forces…usually with an existential/cosmic/macroverse tinge…if not straight up occult. The movie seems to focus more on the former and only dabbles in the latter, which is a bit of a shame for a good number of reasons. We’ll go into those in a bit. As such, whenever the character appears in the comics…particularly in the event crossovers…it is usually in the moment where it is revealed to the heroes that the threat is much graver than any of them had foreseen. Doctor Strange, in essence, is Marvel’s “shit just got real” guy. Now, the final threat in the film, the Dread Dormammu, is indeed a very real ‘shit-meet-fan’ sort of villain, and as a comics fan, I was happy to see him make an appearance in the film without feeling terribly shoe-horned in. The film, however, undermines this tone at every opportunity it gets and in doing so, completely erases any dramatic tension…any illusion of risk for our main hero.
Let’s start with the biggest offender: humor. Look, I enjoy humor. I try to be a funny guy. [It’s amazing to see how many times you’ve failed at that in the history of the website. – Ed.] But anyone that ventures into the absurd for a laugh and attention understands that there is a time and a place for it. And, yes, as any student of drama will tell you, there need to be moments of humor even in the darkest of subject material lest you risk losing the audience to an outright bleak depression…but I maintained before seeing the film and continue to maintain after seeing it that Doctor Strange is NOT the place for the usual Marvel comedic beats and timing. It ends up undermining the seriousness and gravity of the world that Strange inhabits. That being said, I certainly wasn’t against all the humor in the film. I felt the moments of levity brought by, appropriately enough, Strange’s Cloak of Levitation were a perfect fit for the film…as it had a bit of madcap and personality that we’ve come to expect in various cinematic explorations of magic and the items and talismans associated with it. But the wi-fi password joke from the trailers and many of the other quips or cheap visual gags? Not here. They just don’t belong.
You see, this was Marvel’s opportunity to take comic book movies into another direction…and given their past successes, I’m really rather baffled as to why they didn’t take that chance. Sure, they haven’t all worked: The Incredible Hulk gave us a superhero film as a fugitive story, Thor gave us the superhero as fantasy…but then there are the slam dunks that people didn’t expect: the superhero film as both period piece and political thriller as with the Captain America movies, the superhero as science-fiction like Guardians of the Galaxy and the superhero as a heist film like with Ant-Man. Those films ended up exceeding both comic book fans’ and the general public’s expectations for them. To use the ice cream analogy that seems to be a running theme for me with comic book films as of late, sure, all of these Marvel films are variations on vanilla…but you get much further with that particular flavor when it’s strawberry swirl or fudge swirl or cookies and cream…you get the idea. And here’s where Marvel missed the boat with Doctor Strange: you have a hero rooted in the occult…tell me that this is NOT fertile ground for making the superhero movie as a horror film. Heck, Marvel even went out of their way to get Scott Derrickson, a director whose work leans more toward horror films (as they do serve as the majority of his filmography to date), to help write and helm the film. To get someone with a talent for that kind of storytelling and not use it…well, it seems a bit of a waste, doesn’t it? Still, where Marvel fears to tread, DC will likely venture forth with their Justice League Dark/Dark Universe film. Sure, critics will likely tear that eventual film to pieces…but that’s another article for another day. [Or, more accurately, an opinion you’ve already expressed. – Ed.]
For better or for worse, Doctor Strange works within the standard Marvel framework and, as such, if you’ve enjoyed previous Marvel entries, you’ll enjoy this one as well. Sure, I haven’t said anything of it, but yes, Benedict Cumberbatch is indeed perfect in the role…as you’d expect an actor of his caliber to be. Actually, pretty much strong performances all round…and yes, I’ll still defend Tilda Swinton’s casting without having to fall back on the BS “she’s Celtic” excuse that the movie recites almost as an aside. But ultimately, the film only serves to prove Steven Spielberg right. With a lack of variety and daringness, Marvel continues its march into oblivion. You see, what they fail to realize is that audiences are fickle…and when they grow tired of this recipe…they’ll turn…and they’ll turn hard. Sure, DC is meeting with mixed results, but at least each film tries to either challenge the established norm or broaden what it means to be a comic book movie. With Doctor Strange, Marvel had the chance to blaze a new trail and a new tone, but opted to play it safe. While I can’t blame them, and I certainly can’t hate what ended up on the screen, there’s a tinge of guilt in the pit of my stomach…I can’t help but feel like I’m complicit in the death of a beloved film genre as Marvel continues to march into the abyss with its stagnant approach to their film universe.