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Why Marvel’s ‘Doctor Strange’ proved to be the same old story

Courtesy of YouTube

While Disney is by no means on a losing streak like Warner Bros in keeping their superhero movie franchise afloat — all you need to do is check out FX’s weekly marathons and the sheer amount of merchandise at your local Walmart to see that the Marvel mania isn’t going away anytime soon there is no denying that with fourteen films under its belt, tedium is beginning to set in, whether Mickey wants it to or not. While “Civil War” and “Guardian’s” tried their hands at shaking up the universe a bit by introducing a great villain or infusing themselves with a good bit of oddball style, there is no denying that the typical “world in peril” and quip-fest formula that Marvel Cinematic showrunner Kevin Feige set up is in need of some creative life.
Enter “Doctor Strange”, the latest and most psychedelic entry in the Marvel franchise. Boasting one of the — please don’t kill me — strangest and most “out there” characters, the film easily has the most potential in regards to something unique being done with it, as anything can really go with magic. “Doctor Strange” does take advantage of this premise well, providing some genuinely stunning action scenes, as well as finally having a memorable and fitting soundtrack, a first for the Marvel movies. While all that might sound great, it really only made “Strange” all the more disappointing, as while the trippy CGI might stun you, it can’t hide its derivative plot with little to no stakes, cementing itself with “Age of Ultron” and “Thor 2” as one of the weakest links in the Marvel Universe.
For those of you who don’t know the origin of Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme — which I can’t blame you for considering he’s more of a B-tier hero popularity wise — the story follows Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant, but insufferably arrogant neurosurgeon who essentially loses the ability to reliably use his hands, and through that his livelihood. While this might humble most people, this only makes Strange even more of an asshole, pushing away Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), his former lover and last true friend, as each surgery attempt fails.
Desperate for a cure, he eventually winds up at the doorsteps of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a master of sorcery who opens his eyes up to new dimensions and realities within our own. However, the introduction of unimaginable power and worlds come equally powerful threats against Earth, this time in the form of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of the Ancient One who has found a new way for the world to be run, and it’s safe to say that anyone who likes living won’t be a fan of it.
Though the plot synopsis might not clue you in, it’s hard to watch “Doctor Strange” and not see the numerous plot and character similarities from the first “Iron Man” movie and Tony Stark. While this is more of an issue against Stephen Strange’s comic book origin, that doesn’t excuse the fact that this is essentially the fourth time Marvel has used this same origin story template, and considering nothing else narratively was switched up (the world is still about to be blown up yet again, woefully underdeveloped villain, training montage where the protagonist becomes the master in a matter of seconds), I feel like I could have slept through any amount of scenes in the movie and been able to easily fill in the blank due to how strictly the movie adheres to the formula. There is nothing wrong with sticking to whatever works, but considering Marvel has been facing these issues for fourteen movies at this point without bothering to fix them is flat out lazy. I will have to give “Doctor Strange” one thing though, in that it gives the villain for the inevitable sequel some development and set up, although it could have been done better.
The script itself is also very uneven, with many jokes and quips feeling very forced and unbefitting of the characters. At one point, Strange makes jokes about Beyonce and Eminem, which might make sense with Scott Lang’s character from “Antman”, but sounds completely unnatural coming from the egotistical protagonist obsessed with older music presented earlier on in the movie. There was also a point in the movie where Strange goes on about how he refuses to break the Hippocratic Oath when fighting the villains, but at the very beginning of the film he refuses to perform surgery on people in desperate situations because it would break his “perfect record.” Inconsistencies like these begin to build as the movie goes forward, which is surprising that no one pointed out during the production stage.
Thankfully, “Doctor Strange” at least makes efforts to pick up the narrative slack by bringing some truly entertaining visual effects. Although not being quite mind-blowing, the things that Strange and his sorcerer cohorts pull off are nothing less than a visual treat, providing an experience that essentially boils down to “Inception” and “The Matrix” having a baby, and then said baby being dropped in acid. Trailers and ads have shown off the trippy battle that turns London into a M.C. Escher work, the two standouts for me were when the Ancient One sends Strange on a light speed tour throughout the mystical universe, and during the final battle where the newly minted Sorcerer Supreme turns back time itself.
There isn’t too much to argue about acting wise either, as while Marvel may struggle with decent writing, they always knock it out of the park when it comes to casting. Cumberbatch essentially plays a mix of Sherlock, House and Tony Stark, which ends up working fine considering the character. Tilda Swinton is easily the highlight here, as all controversy aside, she completely looks the part of the otherworldly Ancient One and brings a good bit of liveliness and some of the best lines to the movie.
However, perhaps my biggest grievance here is how completely wasted Mads Mikkelsen was as the villain Kaecilius. As anyone who has watched the television adaptation of “Hannibal” or have even watched “Casino Royale” or “The Hunt” can attest, Mikkelsen is a masterclass actor, and a great person to take over the villain role in just about anything. While he at least has one or two more lines than the average Marvel movie villain of the week—which already isn’t saying much—he is given virtually nothing to work with, and really doesn’t even serve as a decent foil to Doctor Strange. Kaecilius is all about order, while Strange just doesn’t want to have any part in the world of sorcery beyond fixing his hands, so they really shouldn’t have any beef with one another, but for some reason the plot still forces them to duke it out.
Rachel McAdams’s Christine Palmer doesn’t fare much better as Strange’s love interest, and is largely forgotten about for most of the movie, only to be brought back when Strange gets himself into trouble. Superhero and action movies have very rarely had any good romantic interest characters — poor Natalie Portman can attest to that after her stint in the Thor movies — but at least they get more screen time than McAdams’s did here.
“Doctor Strange” finds itself operating in a strange limbo of sorts in comparison to the rest of Marvel’s fare. In one way, it actually manages to set itself apart and take full advantage of one of the odder characters in the universe by its outstanding visual effects, but in others, it not only brings to light but magnifies the severely lacking scripts and writing that goes into the MCU’s movies nowadays. Unfortunately, no amount of CGI spectacle can hide issues as serious as that, and Marvel better find that out now rather than later.

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