Forget everything you think you know.
So speaks the Ancient One to Mister…forgive me, Dr. Strange. It’s also a good reminder for the audience, as well, though judging by my theatre, everyone was ready for a new kind of trip. Marvel’s doing something hard, something almost more difficult than tossing RDJ into a powered suit and seeing what shakes out. They have to build it again, but in a world where we already have so many pieces and a comfortable sense of what’s happening. The success and shine of Winter Soldier and Civil War have spoiled us with solidly continuing storylines that have built upon everything that came before, with Ant Man and Doctor Strange opening up new worlds (the Quantum Realm and, well, the entirety of the multiverse, respectively) that are harder to ground in reality. The only current franchise that has attempted that has been Thor, and it’s not an uncommon belief that those films tend to be the weakest of the offerings we’ve have over the last decade. This is the ground that Marvel has to win to bring Infinity Wars to the screen, and, honestly, Phase 3 looks to be shaping up pretty well.
First off, I had an absolute blast watching this movie. It’s fun, it knows when to take itself seriously (and, more importantly, when not to), and it gives us a great education on what to expect from the Strange franchise going forward. I don’t know Doctor Strange very well; he’s never been a character I’ve gravitated to, so I can’t really weigh in on how true they stayed to the comics, but for the casual fan and newcomers alike, I think, overall, the movie gives us a great intro into the mystic arts and its practitioners.
Let’s start with the cast: There has been a lot of discourse over the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One: some of the usual nonsense about casting a woman (because HOW DARE THEY!?) and the rest about casting an originally Asian character with a white person. This second argument is valid, and my first thought on the move was that Marvel (or the Mouse) was trying to pry itself away from the horridly racist overtones that a lot of these characters exhibited in their origins (as they did the Mandarin in Iron Man 3), but seeing as how the trailer for White Man Saves China (a.k.a. The Great Wall) played before my showing, I’m thinking that the motivation wasn’t quite as pure as that. (I know that they don’t pick the previews, but it was a little on point for me.) All of that said, Swinton is a class 5 badass; she and the rest of this incredible cast absolutely light up this movie and elevate what could have been a ridiculously super silly flick into something greater. Cumberbatch brings all of his wit, charm, and passion to the forefront, redefining Strange in the same way RDJ did Tony Stark, and now I can’t see anyone else in that role. Chiwetel Ejiofor matches him in intensity and humor, redefining Mordo and giving some interesting depth to the character. Rachel McAdams shines as a female character who handles a whole lotta strange (Hehe, I kill me.) with determination and poise. Some of this role falls into the “girl in a superhero movie” trope bin, but McAdams steps up and over the material to make her role a lot more than that. (I adore her when she gets good material, and if you do, as well, make sure to check her out in season one of Slings and Arrows. You’re welcome). Benedict Wong is a pitch-perfect straight man to all of Cumberbatch and Ejiofor’s gags and delivers my favorite performance of the lot.
So, does Doctor Strange manage to grace us with a moving and engaging villain outside of Loki? No. Though there are some wonderful moments with Mads Mikkelsen (who can go step for step with BC anytime) and a lovely speech that is super reminiscent of Malcom McDowell in Star Trek: Generations (You’ll know it when it happens.), Kaecilius is never elevated to even match the power of the “good guys,” so we’re still waiting for Marvel to figure out how to do a villain anywhere near as well as they lucked out with Thor’s little brother. Beyond the powers, Kaecilius is just a lackey for the real big bad, but Cumberbatch even blows him away as easily as the rest with the greatest scene in the whole film.
As stories go, the movie isn’t incredible; it’s heavier on characters than plot, and some of the key moments seem rushed or glossed over at times, but the core cast makes the best of it and delivers well above the material. It almost feels like they wanted to get the origin out of the way as quickly as possible, but since that’s pretty much the movie, it’s a little hard to justify. I went in expecting something on the level of the first Iron Man and that’s pretty much what I got. I will admit I’m very eager to see a meeting of Stark, Strange, and Rocket come Infinity Wars; it’s setting up to be a super snark fest of the grandest order.
I think this movie is a great beginning for the more oddball world and expanded reality that Marvel is shifting to and really follows Ant-Man‘s lead brilliantly. (I still want every Phase 3 movie to end with Michael Pena doing a recap, damn it.) It’s fun enough to be worth seeing in the theatre, and if special effects are your game, then I would highly recommend the IMAX 3D experience, as it’s some of the most min- blowing stuff I’ve seen yet. Reminiscent of the finale of Interstellar but on a much more consistent and grander level. It’s pretty, it’s polished, and it’s fun. Doctor Strange is a great addition to the Marvel pantheon.
Oh, and please don’t be the people who leave once the credits roll. There’s both a mid- and post-credits scene, with both being crucial to upcoming films. I’ll admit the mid is my favorite, but the post may serve to help address Marvel’s villain issue a touch. So, get the smaller drink or hold you potty needs a little longer. It’s really worth it.