Marvel Studios has cemented itself as a company viewers expect great things from. For the past two years it has been consistent in delivering quality. This year saw the release of one of the finest films in the franchise, Civil War. Now the company takes a short break from the ensemble to focus on introducing another character to the fold. Directed by Scott Derrickson, Doctor Strange is an enjoyable installment with a unique spiritual backdrop. The main thing stopping it from being truly great is a mediocre climax.
In some ways Doctor Strange is similar to the first Iron Man. Like Tony Stark, Stephen Strange is introduced as an arrogant man only looking out for himself. The path to his redemption is engaging. The opening act does a good job establishing who he is as a surgeon. Everything seems to be going right, but one event can change everything. In Iron Man’s case it was the terrorists killing Tony’s companions and kidnapping him. In Doctor Strange it’s the car crash that sets him on a path he didn’t expect to be on.
As stated in the first paragraph, the film has a unique spiritual backdrop. Scott Derrickson is a Christian, and he brings quite a few Biblical themes to the table. The conversation between Stephen and the Ancient One on life in general comes to mind. Ancient One shows him in a fun sequence how there’s more to life than what is happening in front of them. Derrickson delivers something refreshing with utilizing aspects of faith which is unfortunately rare in films.
The core of the story is found in the middle act with Stephen traveling to Nepal in hopes of healing his hands. This is one of the main aspects of the origin: Stephen training alongside other sorcerers. It’s well done mostly, but falters in perhaps being too long. There isn’t a big action sequence for quite awhile after the opening scene. The biggest problem with the training aspect might be that the film doesn’t let the viewer know how much time has passed since Stephen first walked through the doors. If we take the film at face value, it hasn’t been that long, so it’s hard to believe that Stephen was able to master all these techniques so quickly. He learns spells and actually outsmarts Wong.
Benedict Cumberbatch owns the role as the title character. By the end of the film he’s one of the most engaging Marvel protagonists. His role as Sorcerer Supreme will be a lot of fun to watch in future films. The story does a good job detailing the type of work the Ancient One and her fellow sorcerers do. Wong’s dialogue stating,“The Avengers protect the world from physical dangers. We safeguard it against more mystical threats.” was excellent. Speaking of Wong, he was a lot of fun to have around. Every scene he was in with Strange was a highlight. Going back to the Ancient One, she was a compelling character. The writing gave her the best lines; Tilda Swinton delivered them with excellence.
Baron Mordo is an interesting, likable character. Anyone who has read the comics knows what happens; nonetheless, the writing does an excellent job building up to his big plot development in the after-credits scene. Before moving on to the antagonists, there’s one more character of note. Christine Palmer doesn’t appear too much but when she does it’s almost always a good scene. The viewer can feel her sadness when Strange early on basically tells her that without his work, life isn’t worth living, even with her. This plays into the excellent development later when Strange admits he was wrong. Romance doesn’t play a huge part in the story, but what is there is very genuine, in contrast to what is seen in some other Marvel films. (Thor and Ant-Man come to mind when it comes to poorly developed romances.)
The film has two main antagonists. The first is Kaecilius. He wasn’t that interesting, but at least the idea of a former student turning over to the dark side was done alright. The true villain behind everything is Dormammu. He gets a lot of hype throughout the story, and rightfully so. In the comics he’s a powerful figure, on the level of Thanos. Marvel had the opportunity to introduce a major character, and it failed miserably.
Dormammu is Doctor Strange’s greatest antagonist and an extremely powerful character. In the film he is described as a destroyer of worlds but we never get a glimpse of that. Instead when he finally appears he is just a floating head with a deep voice. In the comics he has a menacing, humanoid appearance with a flaming head similar to Ghost Rider’s. We didn’t see that here. Marvel is typically good with accurately bringing characters from the page to the screen but this is just as bad as what FOX did with Galactus in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. The climax also doesn’t help. Instead of a grand final battle, Strange beats Dormammu in a most unsatisfying way. It’s amusing after the first couple of times (though the ability is too overpowered) but becomes an annoying running gag considering it’s at the expense of Dormammu actually doing something. This was a massive disappointment and could potentially ruin the film for longtime fans of the villain.
The visuals are perhaps the film’s best feature. They are unlike anything we’ve seen in previous comic book films and rival that of Inception’s loopy visuals. They made for some really unique action sequences. From the opening fight scene to the battle in the mirror dimension, it’s an experience witnessing reality being warped. The soundtrack is another highlight. Marvel films don’t typically have notable soundtracks, but Doctor Strange breaks that trend. It’s still not spectacular (there are a few generic themes in there) but it’s solid thanks to the epic choir throughout the film.
Overall, Doctor Strange is an engaging introduction for the Sorcerer Supreme. Scott Derrickson brings excellent themes to the table. Time is limited – we’re not here forever, so we need to make the most of every opportunity to do good. This is something the Ancient One says to Stephen later in the film. There’s a lot of excellent dialogue. The visuals are unique and something to be experienced on the big screen. Unfortunately the climax is disappointing and a major drawback.