Film in review: “Doctor Strange”

Film in review: “Doctor Strange”

Allison Mueller

Nathaniel Nelson / Winonan

Marvel has had a rough time over the last couple of years. It seems that whenever a movie is looking good, it manages to completely fall over itself on release. “Ant-man” squandered its talented cast with a cookie-cutter plot and a distinct lack of Edgar Wright. “Captain America: Civil War” was a narrative trainwreck, with a great opening moving into a complete mess of clichés and over-indulgent pointless cameos. “Doctor Strange” looked like the film that could turn things around, with its kaleidoscopic psychedelia and mystical hero. In some regards, “Doctor Strange” is one of the best films Marvel has ever made. But in the overall canon, the film is a massive disappointment.

“Strange” features a brilliant surgeon who, after suffering a major accident setting back his skills by decades, sets out to return to his former glory. After a series of fights and setbacks, the scientist comes to terms with his accident and becomes something new: A hero. The story of “Doctor Strange” is one of the most unique plots in the entire… wait, nevermind. It’s nearly identical to Iron Man with a little bit of Thor mysticism added in for good measure. With the kind of plot intricacies and stories of the old Doctor Strange and Journey Into Mystery comics, Marvel could’ve made this into a real showstopper, with a story unlike anything else in superhero cinema. Instead, they went with what has already worked time and time again, and the film suffers greatly.

The plot isn’t the only story problem, either. There’s also the matter of the villain. I don’t know what it is, but Marvel is seemingly incapable of making a well-developed antagonist. Even with the help of ever-talented Mads Mikkelsen, Kaecilius doesn’t ever move past the role of “man who just wants to watch the world burn.” Well, in reality, we can’t even be sure of that much because the character barely speaks. Nothing hurts a film more than having a weak villain, and that’s a problem that Marvel needs to work on pronto.

There’s one other major negative in the film: the casting. Particularly, the casting of a white actor in a Tibetan role. Now, there are arguments for why it was necessary. They’ve said they didn’t want to go off of stereotypes, or that they wanted a woman character instead. But to me, it just feels like whitewashing. Just because a character is of Tibetan origin does not mean it has to be played stereotypically, yet the studio went with the easy way out. Tilda Swinton is fine in her role, but that air of disenfranchisement never goes away.

Here’s where this review will start to sound odd. While the problems are too hard to ignore this time around, “Doctor Strange” manages to be one of my favorite Marvel movies so far, and it owes everything to the visuals. I grew up reading Doctor Strange comics, and they had a very specific style to them. A hallmark of late 60s and early 70s psychedelic art, artist Steve Ditko’s drawings had this uniquely celestial flair to them. The film doesn’t just embrace that art, it becomes it. Trippy and electric mandalas flash across the screen as buildings and structures become perpetually moving fractals of special effects sorcery. The combination of vibrant colors and technical marvels is out of this world, and make the film stand out like no Marvel flick has before

The fact that “Strange” is the first truly mystical film in the franchise means there is both a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of content to draw from. The best Marvel comics are the ones that go against the norm, and seeing that on screen is an utter delight. This mysticism goes through all the way to the fight scenes, with ingenious hand movements (choreographed by finger-tutting Youtuber JayFunk) allowing even the fights to have a well-defined feeling of absurdity and character. That said, it’s not perfect. Doctor Strange is a dark comic, with subtle humor to balance it out. The film, on the other hand, contains some of the most intrusive and tonally imbalanced humor Marvel has ever produced, including a long sequence mid-fight involving a certain cloak. It’s not that the scenes aren’t funny, but it’s that they’re completely unnecessary.

If there’s one thing that “Doctor Strange” proves, it’s that Marvel needs to make a change. The visuals are astounding, and new ideas are great, but Marvel seems to be stuck in a routine. The film tries too hard to connect with every audience instead of a specific one, and as such, manages to come off as an ultra-safe blockbuster mixing new ideas and old habits. All in all, I can say that “Doctor Strange” is the best version of a film you’ve already seen four times. If Marvel doesn’t pick up the slack, their cinematic universe may be on its way out. 3/5

-Nathaniel Nelson