Marvel has dug a pretty comfortable groove for themselves when it comes to the origin films for their heroes. It’s not a formula that they invented—at least not in movie form—but they’ve managed to use it time and again to make movies that are individually entertaining in their own right without having to be groundbreaking, and the sheer volume of their output combined with the connectivity between their franchises draws those similarities into sharper focus. Doctor Strange is a perfectly fine film that is a bit more transparent in its formula than most Marvel outings, but it thankfully makes up for that by being one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most visually adventurous attempts.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a cocky but extremely skilled neurosurgeon at the top of the world who loses motor function in his hands in a car crash, effectively ending his career. Despite all the procedures that money can buy, he cannot restore his hands to their former steady perfection, so he seeks out the help of a mystical order in Nepal for help. Under the tutelage of a sorcerer named Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a Sorcerer Supreme known only as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, whose great performance does not excuse the whitewashed casting of this character), Strange trains in the art of sorcery while a threat to destroy the world mounts from one of The Ancient One’s former pupils (Mads Mikkelsen).
Strip away the particular gimmicks of this story and you have the standard Marvel plotline: Immature man faces a dark reflection of himself in order to stop a world-threatening cataclysm, and his personal growth is symbolized by his love interest’s transition from a maternal role to a romantic one (though that last part is actually rather minimized in this installment, Rachel McAdams still clings on in a vestigial girlfriend role that could likely have been excised with minimal impact on the plot). There’s nothing wrong with familiar storytelling, but the shared universe of the Marvel films does shine a light on how the studio uses this basic outline as a crutch in devoting necessary screentime to developing the mythos inherent in each new franchise.
Thankfully, Doctor Strange is a unique enough property within the MCU that the familiarity is forgivable. This is the film that introduces magic to a narrative universe that has thus far only dealt with technological advancements (and before I get a bunch of comments, Thor and the Asgardians are confirmed to simply be hyper-advanced aliens according to the lore of the films, and therefore are not strictly magical. Calm down, nerds). Along with that magical introduction comes some of the trippiest visual spectacle Marvel Studios has ever produced. Dr. Strange and company’s dimension-hopping chase-action sequences evoke psychedelic color schemes and kaleidoscopic reality-bending effects that mess with notions of time and space in a way not seen since Inception. More than anything, Doctor Strange is a visual Marvel. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
If anything, my main takeaway from Doctor Strange is that Marvel doesn’t need to adhere to a standard action movie formula in order for their films to be successful. The visual effects sequences are all largely either training demonstrations or chases, so when the characters begin kung fu fighting amongst all the visual splendor it almost seems to exist out of a sense of obligation. Despite Doctor Strange’s adherence to conventional Marvel plot structuring, it feels like a dip into a genre outside of Marvel’s traditional action safe zone. It ultimately never leaves that zone, but there’s a glimpse of potential there for future franchises to branch out. In the meantime, though, Doctor Strange is plenty of fun, even if the visual flourish doesn’t quite disguise the familiar beats.