The Marvel Cinematic Universe has almost become its own genre at this point, and as such it obeys its own rules. For all the talk about Doctor Strange shaking things up, its differences come more in the surface details than the underlying story. That said, there’s nothing wrong with the underlying story – predictable yet sturdy – and when you add the unique visuals that a character like this can facilitate, it makes this one of the more interesting entries in Hollywood’s 600-lb. gorilla of a franchise.
In terms of sheer quality, Doctor Strange sits firmly on Marvel’s second tier: reliable, but not mind-blowing. Stock characters appear where more fleshed-out personalities are called for, and the predictable arc of an arrogant man brought low shares a lot with numerous other comic book characters (Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Robert Downey’s Iron Man for starters). Our villain (Mads Mikkelsen) has a standard-issue scheme to shroud the world in eternal darkness, and the various supporting players don’t deviate from their boilerplate roles in the Hero’s Journey. It works well as an MCU placeholder, and director Scott Derrickson is reliable enough not to make any mistakes. But it doesn’t inspire the kind of excitement that the very best entries in the franchise do, content to stick with the program rather than make waves.
That doesn’t take the surface details into account, however, and in this case, they add a lot more than flash and sizzle. It starts with the casting, which may be the MCU’s best yet for sheer poundage. Take Mikkelsen, for instance. The actor brings an enormous cache of charisma with him, especially when playing villains, and while the script leaves serious gaps in his character, the actor fills them effortlessly just by being who he is. Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor pull off similar tricks, and even Rachel McAdams scores a few hits with an otherwise thankless girlfriend role.
The film really belongs to Benedict Cumberbatch, of course, playing arrogant surgeon Stephen Strange whose skilled hands are all but crushed in an auto accident. His desperate search for a cure leads him to Nepal, where an ancient order teaches him a new path in the mystic arts (and instills a little humility in him in the bargain). Cumberbatch deftly charts his own course with the character despite the similarities to other figures in the MCU. Indeed, the director wanted him so badly that they bumped the film’s original release date from August just so that Cumberbatch could carve out time in his schedule for it. He’s perfect, finding the right mixture of ego, petulance and growing wisdom that helps the character become more than the walking exposition delivery system he too often becomes in the comics.
The cast anchors the first real exploration of magic in the MCU, and here the film’s second big asset kicks into place. Derrickson make marvelous use of the visuals to convey the same psychedelic mind-bending images that marked the comic’s 1960s heyday. He cribs heavily from Inception and The Matrix at points, but adds a few flourishes of his own that turn otherwise mundane action scenes into something quietly special. (Two characters try to conduct a fight while time runs backwards around them, for instance.) That trend extends to quieter moments when the realms Strange explores take us out of our comfort zones. It makes for quite a head trip, and more importantly, provides the story some badly needed distinction among its fellows in the MCU.
And in some ways, it does even better than that. Old-school comic fans are still pinching themselves that characters like Strange have actually made it to the big screen. With Downey, Hemsworth and Chris Evans presumably moving on sometime in the future, it falls to figures like Strange to carry on the MCU. Chadwick Boseman made a great first step on that front with the Black Panther, and you can add Cumberbatch to the growing list. Doctor Strange is great fun but more importantly, the character can show us a lot more in future films. That’s the secret that keeps the MCU running… and who knows more about secrets than this guy?