Even for those who don’t know a scrap about the source material, a title like Doctor Strange sets expectations. Sure, this may be a Marvel movie, but a run-of-the-mill blockbuster? Far from it, the name declares. This one’s gonna be weird. It’s got Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton! It’s got weird costumes and magic powers! It is, quite obviously, strange. Or so the title tells us.
So, is this the oddball of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Yes and no. For better and for worse — mostly for better — Doctor Strange is a by-the-numbers origin story, a franchise-launcher designed to sell loads of tickets and spawn sequels. It achieves neither the defiantly rambunctious energy of Guardians of the Galaxy, the MCU’s other off-kilter tentpole, nor the familiar warmth of Captain America: The First Avenger. Planted somewhere in between, it aims to have its weird, weird cake and eat it, too. Strange, sure, but not too strange, if you please. We’ve got tickets to sell.
Mission accomplished. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a wildly successful surgeon, a handsome, arrogant, brilliant man whose skill in his profession is matched only by his outrageous disdain for others. When his career seems to be cut short by an accident (brought about through his own folly, naturally) and traditional medicine fails him, he sets out in search of other ways of healing himself. Enter the Ancient One (Swinton) and her band of sorcerers (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong), all practitioners of a mystic art capable of healing the injured and keeping otherworldly evil at bay — and currently occupied in a battle against a former acolyte (Mads Mikkelsen) who seems hell-bent on bringing about global destruction.
If that sounds simultaneously super familiar and fairly weird, you have the right idea. Doctor Strange perfectly balances its commitment to the bizarre comic book stories from which it springs with the familiar tropes of the origin story, all while weaving in elements key to the larger story the MCU is spinning. If this were just a paint-by-numbers Marvel movie, it would feel awfully contrived. If it were only a tale of hubris and mysticism, it might border on insufferable. By blending the two, it achieves a middle ground that should please many without dipping a toe into the mundane — and it does so far more efficiently (clock that running time) than most comic book movies could even dream.
There’s a third ingredient, one that’s perhaps the most essential to Strange’s success: a terrific sense of humor. Like the aforementioned Guardians, the movie’s greatest achievements come from unexpectedly spiking the film’s expected beats with something from the other end of the spectrum. With Guardians, it was cutting the rowdy fun with moments like Rocket’s rage against his very existence, or Groot’s one variation in vocabulary. With Doctor Strange, it’s the opposite: a tale in the vein of Greek tragedy laced with Beyoncé jokes and surprising sight gags.
Still, the humor isn’t the main event here, and neither is the story (and nor is Cumberbatch, though he’s perfectly cast.) Doctor Strange is, hands down, the most visually stunning film from Marvel to date, and the rare movie that really should be experienced in 3D. Cities melt and transform, buildings fold in on themselves or duplicate endlessly, gravity becomes both a friend and enemy, and even the air can’t be trusted to remain as air. While there are certainly a few notable sequences (including the film’s dazzling opening battle), some of the most eye-popping effects are handled with such a casual air that it’s easy to forget the accomplishment you’re seeing. What’s the big deal, the film seems to ask. This is just how this world works.
On the subject of ways the world works, we arrive at Tilda Swinton. Swinton’s casting created a hell of a backlash, with critics decrying the choice as yet another instance of Hollywood whitewashing. Swinton and director Scott Derrickson have defended the choice, and their arguments mostly seem to hold water. A better indicator of the film’s good intent is the handling of Wong, a character who, on the page, functions as a servant and sidekick, but here defends ancient sources of knowledge (and occasionally the laws of nature and time).
Still, not everything about Doctor Strange sits just right. There’s no way around the fact that this is yet another film about a white dude traveling east to learn a mystic, ancient art form at which he immediately becomes a master. Is there a way to avoid that kind of thoughtless trope while telling this story? Perhaps (even probably) not. Does that mean that Doctor Strange should never have been made? That’s a much bigger question, and not one well-suited to the limits of a review. But for a film so effortlessly self-aware about its potential pitfalls, so keyed into the ways it might be perceived that it turns potential negatives into the source of some truly delightful moments of humor, this total lack of awareness feels wrong-footed. It’s a slightly sour note in an otherwise solid film.
Still, there’s precious little to complain about. Doctor Strange lacks the bloat that’s made other recent, blockbusting superhero films fall flat. It doesn’t lean too hard on the considerable talents of its stars, nor does it waste their talents. It keeps a brisk pace, but doesn’t rush. It gets weird, but not too weird. And if all else fails, it’ll make your jaw drop from time to time. Life-changing it ain’t, but Doctor Strange more than gets the job done, and in a year when so many blockbusters have disappointed, it’s hard to wish for much more.