Marvel Cinematic Universe films fall into two categories: origin stories and franchise expansions. “Iron Man,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Ant-Man” are origin stories. “The Avengers” and the last two “Captain America” films have been franchise expansions. While individual films obviously have their distinct features and narratives, the plot structure and consequences can be broken into these two categories. “Doctor Strange” is an origin story, and a familiar one at that.
Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Stephen Strange, a renowned neurosurgeon whose recklessness and ego lead him to a life-changing car accident. The resulting nerve damage puts his surgical career on ice, and his pursuit for a remedy drops him at the doorstep of Kamar-Taj, a city hidden in the Himalayas, and the Ancient One, a mystical being whose powers transcend time and space. There, Strange begins his study of the supernatural arts.
“Doctor Strange” is Marvel’s first film foray into that mystical side of their comics (which is different from Thor and Asgard), and it has a lot of set-up to accomplish. The tricky thing is that the Ancient One and her powers are loosely defined, and beyond what we actually see her do on screen we have no idea the true extent of her power. Likewise, what we do see is barely explained.
That said, the visuals of this movie are incredible, probably the best in a Marvel film so far. Battles between mystical beings are constantly shifting and moving, as the battleground becomes a cross between a kaleidoscope and an M.C. Escher painting. As Strange travels between different dimensions, reality shifts and cracks. Director Scott Derrickson deserves a lot of credit for wrangling such an abstract concept into a beautiful, engaging visual feast.
At the end of the day though, “Doctor Strange” is still another Marvel origin story, and at this point in the Universe, it’s all too familiar. Strange is a flawed character who ultimately sabotages himself and his career. He works in close proximity with a former lover, a one-dimmensional side-character, who would be with him if only she could fix him.
The villain, Kaecilius, is bare bones and only exists to challenge Strange’s new powers — but also there’s a larger villain pulling the strings the whole time. It’s all by the numbers, and it’s not particularly interesting, especially knowing that this origin movie is only necessary so he can be written into later franchise expansions, such as the upcoming “Avengers: Infinity War,” set to be released in May of 2018. Plus, the dialogue is stuffed with quip after quip, trying to inject stale humor into the stale formula.
I’m a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the bubble is close to bursting. They need to inject their movies with more than beautiful visuals to keep them interesting. “Doctor Strange” isn’t bad by any means, it’s just been done before. And with Marvel pumping out two to three movies a year, they’ll need something fresh to keep people coming back. “Doctor Strange” isn’t it.