After the star-studded Captain America: Civil War, it was always going to be difficult to follow it up with a brand new character. Doctor Strange nabbed trendy Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch, and selected a diverse cast to support him, including Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams and Benedict Wong.
Considering Tony Stark was a smug, goatee-toating, highly-intelligent expert in his field, Doctor Strange initially feels too familiar – until his slick, sports car clips another and smashes off the road, permanently damaging his exceptional operating hands.
Any origin story will inevitably draw parallels and Marvel can’t escape the similarities to its previous efforts. Man is forced to go on a journey after an unexpected change in life circumstance. This journey forces him to change who he is and, by the end, truly becomes – in this case – “Doctor Strange”. He’s arrogant and affluent, an Iron Man without an Avengers ‘incident’ to bring him down, but the narrative curve we’re due to follow is thinking about others over oneself. It’s not exactly the most profound sentiment but when Donald Trump might become the next American President and the UK vote to isolate themselves from Europe, it is relevant. Doctor Strange needs to think of life, and the world, as bigger than his limited perspective. It’s about more than living the high-life in New York and his visit to Nepal, and the secret temple of Kamar-Taj, changes everything.
Doctor Strange has that awkward film-by-numbers feel as puzzles pieces from other blockbuster movies are forced together to make a new one. The secret society of sorcerers are like wizards, using special hand gestures and colourful, mysterious weapons to defeat their enemies. Harry Potter (or Newt Scamander from the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them) knows this fantasy world well. But the team, of ‘the one’, ‘expert teacher’ and others, all kung-fu kicking together to protect the world from an evil we can’t fathom, inevitably links Doctor Strange to The Matrix. Even Michael Giacchino’s expansive score clearly takes its cue from Don Davis’ memorable work with the Wachowski’s. The training spaces seem so similar that when Strange has his first taste and, in awe, tells the Ancient One “teach me”, it seems to distinctly mirror Neo’s “I know kung-fu” moment.
Then there are the Inception-inspired visuals, as entire cities fold endlessly in magnificent 3D fashion. It takes place in a ‘mirrored’ version of the world, to confuse our heroes in fights, while simultaneously confusing us. There’s no clarity as to how the heroes navigate their way through the mazes, after their world has suddenly been turned into an infinite number of possibilities, yet they leap and punch their way easily enough. The Escher link in Inception was directly connected to dreams, as you were limited by your imagination. But Doctor Strange uses the feature as unique aesthetic to separate the film from the many previous Marvel movies, none of which look as spellbindingly complex as this.
Doctor Strange, akin to most Marvel Studio offerings, is entertaining and enjoyable, but it doesn’t truly challenge us as viewers. Between Tilda Swinton’s warm and likeable teacher (a far call from the stern, serious Morpheus of The Matrix) and a cape that could be cut from the same cloth as the magic carpet in Disney’s Aladdin, Doctor Strange is a pick’n’mix of charming characters and re-used creativity. The biggest crime committed by Director Scott Derrickson is his decision to only tease Michael Stuhlbarg’s almost-cameo role – let’s hope the sequel will use him better. Doctor Strange is a mysterious beast, with a lightning pace and a fun story, but it fails to truly shake the foundations of the cliché origin story and is shackled by the model-making kit of Marvel Studios how-to-make-a-film process.
This was originally written for Culturefly in November 2016