A photographic memory, a complicated personality, 177A Blecker street, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Which genius literary hero am I speaking of? It’s Dr. Steven Strange, the charming, flirtatious, magical doctor, played, as the universe dictates, by the equally charming Mr. Cumberbatch.
Marvel continues to stretch their opening logo-time with each success, showing off the status of their brand. They have every reason to gloat, and Dr. Strange does nothing to change that. But, does it enhance the brand? Does it lie in that good second-tier Marvel shelf, along with Ant-Man and Thor, or does it stretch up to that top shelf to be remembered among the Guardians, Winter Soldier and Thor (I’m conflicted, ok?). Read below to get my take on the shelving of Dr. Strange.
Dr. Strange is an origin story, and follows the origin of the comic-book character pretty closely. Dr. Stephen Strange is the brilliant asshole surgeon who only goes for the interesting cases that will bolster his reputation. After his hands suffer serious nerve-damage in a car accident, he will try anything to find a cure. He ends up in Katmandu, and begins to learn the teachings of the Ancient One.
If it’s not clear from the promos: Benedict Cumberbatch nails it. His accent felt a bit weird on occasion (not every Brit can be Dr. House), but since I’m not American I don’t know how good it really was. For me, the movie was at its absolute best when it was about Dr. Strange’s journey. His quips are just right, his emotions feel real, and his personal struggle is difficult but surmountable.
Marvel is good at origin stories, even when the character doesn’t have a traditional journey to conquer. Captain America: The First Avenger manages to be a top shelf Marvel movie with practically no character development. Dr. Stephen Strange has a classic “asshole betters himself and becomes the hero” story, but it still fails slightly in the third act. I think we can look to the other Marvel origins to see what doesn’t quite get me.
The villain makes the third act great. At the end of act two the new hero should have accepted his or her destiny and decided to do or die against the threat that has been simmering from the start of the movie. Maybe they’ve had an encounter before, but it’s now they meet with our hero knowing what needs to be done. Mikkelsen is a great actor and his villain has a lot of interesting traits. He is the hero of his own story – he wants to save us all, in a way. He reminds me a bit of Voldemort with his followers and obsession with death (and also how he uses forbidden knowledge to outsmart it).
He is a villain with arguments that are enticing. Living outside of time? I could see some people falling for that. But he is perhaps not the best villain for an origin movie of Dr. Strange. In Captain America, the Redskull was our hero’s opposite: the failed, power-hungry version of the super soldier. In Iron Man Obediah was someone Tony looked up to, and his betrayal was devatasting on a personal level. Kaecilius is unknown to Strange, and while his “alternate teachings” are somewhat intriguing to Strange, it is not enough to make Kaecilius an object of fascination, a true temptation away from Strange’s personal betterment.
What if their relationship had been closer to a Harry Potter / Draco Malfoy type? Equal, but one a corrupted version. They need not be school mates, but by placing them just a little bit closer in ability, I feel the film could have had a more personal ending. Tilda Swinton plays the Ancient One beautifully, and her relationships with her students are compelling: one questioning, one loyal, and one already disillusioned. Perhaps the film could have benefitted if this had been the main focus. Either or both of these changes might have made for more of a wow-ending.
As you might have guessed, it is the inclusion of Dormammu that irks me slightly. He is creepy (I mean that in a good way), and the last “battle” with Strange is brilliant. I love that Strange uses his mind in the end. That is pure Sherlock.
Despite my long ramble about origins and villains, Dr. Strange does a lot of things right. The effects are amazing, and illustrate just how unafraid Marvel is of letting all their movies be their own vehicles. We don’t need the down and dirty fighting of The Winter Soldier, we have magic! Seriously cool magic. And that’s my absolute favourite thing about Marvel movies: they live in the same universe, but they aren’t painted with the exact same brush.
Does Dr. Strange get to the top shelf of Marvel movies? Maybe not, but it is a solid start to a great character. And if nothing else, you can watch it just because you’re desperate for that season three of Sherlock.
Dice roll: 4.5 (or the “I hate ratings today”-rating)