Maybe it’s because of all the mystical stuff- writers not being able to really get a grip on the ambiguity of what makes for magic that drags movies like these down. When dealing with science & technology (Iron Man, Captain America) or even evolution (Xmen) we’re treated to essays on humanity and courage- what they mean, finding it and holding onto it. Like Thor, Doctor Strange is just about some guy who decides to stop being a jerk so he can get his hands on some magic.
The Ancient One: Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all.
Dr. Stephen Strange: Which is?
The Ancient One: It’s not about you.
Starts with a brand new opening montage of all the characters in the MCU for the logo, which looks great. The opening scene is a magical battle between the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) with his minions in the (not) streets of London. This sets the tone for the movie with some amazing SFX that look like the Matrix, Inception and Warcraft had a threesome. This is the Mirror Dimension- a pocket reality where sorcerors hone their powers, battle each other and deal with threats while the rest of the world remains untouched and unaware. Pillars, archways and window boxes turning like pinion gears, outer facings of buildings alternating between rippling like ocean waves or shifting like a Rubik’s cube- this is some trippy stuff. Magic spells took to the fine example set by Warcraft- glyphs, sigils, symbols, etc, being manipulated- and ran with it.
Both Stephen Strange’s life before and the people in it are nothing special; you get to see what a brilliant surgeon and a jerk he is- just enough for background material. Love interest, rival, GQ lifestyle- all ticked off by the numbers and easily forgotten as soon as they’re off screen.
The script suffers from exposition overload- you’re always being told & lectured as to what’s going on, never experiencing the journey or feeling it. That emptiness Batman v Superman left you with?- it’s back. Again, going back to Iron Man, Captain America & Xmen this movie lacks heart, plain and simple. It just sits there looking pretty. It’s all so much by the numbers, you’re really going to be thinking you’ve seen it before- especially in certain scenes. When you’re watching a superhero movie and you start thinking ‘they lifted this from Green Lantern’ or ‘they got that from Matrix Revolutions’… that ain’t good.
Kaecilius: You’ll die defending this world, Mister…
Dr. Stephen Strange: Doctor!
Kaecilius: Mister Doctor?
Dr. Stephen Strange: It’s Strange!
Kaecilius: Maybe, who am I to judge?
It takes until the second act for Strange to meet up with Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who, to paraphrase Yoda, tell him he’ll have to unlearn what he’s learned. Meeting the Ancient One doesn’t go well- after showing him the wonders & terrors of what lies beyond this world she casts him out, refusing to teach him, only to wonder if she really should’ve done that when, in fact, she’s been waiting for someone like him all along. If you’re thinking that doesn’t make much sense, you’d be right. But don’t sweat it.
Christine Palmer: Where have you been?
Dr. Stephen Strange: I went to Kathmandu, and I learned to tap into powers I never even knew existed.
Christine Palmer: So you joined a cult?
Like all the MCU movies, this one ties directly into the Infinity Gauntlet storyline, relating to one of the gems. The magical artifacts used by the characters have a latent sentience to them- they choose whom they’ll allow to wield them when the relic decides that person’s ready. In other words: “Whosoever holds this (item), if he be worthy, shall possess the power of (blank)”. Yep, they went there.
[the Cloak of Levitation clings to Strange, caressing him]
Baron Mordo: It likes you.
Dr. Stephen Strange: Stop!
All the criticism about director Scott Derrickson’s casting choices was justified as they made no difference to the character portrayals, so what was the point of them? Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One is a Celtic mystic who somehow ended up in Kathmandu, has an Asian man as one of her trusted companions, practices Eastern mysticism… yet couldn’t be Asian herself because that would be stereotypical. Swinton’s take on the role was to render it androgynous – her stock in trade- despite being obviously female, which is to say that it could only be pulled off by a white person. Derrickson even admits that ultimately it was all about creating diversity. Whatever, man.
Cumberbatch did a good job as Stephen Strange. He fit the role like a glove, just wasn’t a whole lot to do with it other than a few personal tics and mannerisms. Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius is, like most MCU bad guys, underserved. His first appearance- heck, his first line of dialogue- hints to his motives but this never really gets explored. Maybe in the blu-ray edition. His most important function is that he reveals a terrible secret about the Ancient One, one that actually impacts the plot of the movie. To that end, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo- the Ancient One’s Right Hand Man- fares a little better; in fact, his arc closely parallels Kaecilius’, as seen in both the third act and the second after credits scene.
One thing that’s also not quite clear is when this movie takes place in the MCU. Some earlier dialogue references Rhodey’s injuries as War Machine in Civil War, but as the movie progresses that doesn’t make much sense as Strange’s recovery and mystic training would take way too long to fit into a time frame parallel with everything else going on. Time will tell, I guess.
Dr. Stephen Strange: How do I get from here to there?
The Ancient One: How did you become a doctor?
Dr. Stephen Strange: Study and practice- years of it.
[the Ancient One nods]
The climactic battle at the end is as rushed as the rest of the movie, like they needed to wrap things up. In the finale we meet the Dread Dormammu… except he’s not. And this is yet another plot device you’ve seen before, wasting another potentially great villain.
Ultimately, like Thor, this one is pretty standard fare, just serves its purpose. And that’s really a shame.
Score/Grade: 7.5/10 (B+)