“You ever see that in a gift shop?” -- The Ancient One
You know, any day now, Marvel Studios is going to drop the ball on one of these movies. It's just a matter of odds and time. One day, they're either going to pick a character that's hard to translate, or they're not going to cast it right, or they're going to pick the wrong director, or some other perfect storm is going to come along, their formula is going to fail them and they'll do their equivalent of Pixar's Cars 2.
Doctor Strange is not that movie.
Yes, by now we can see the standard ingredients of a Marvel Origin Story(™), take one flawed person, usually a jerk with a heart of gold and potential, place them in extraordinary circumstances that gives them powers beyond mortal men, let them learn a lesson about heroism and then watch them save the day.
Yes, by now the formula is getting a bit creaky, but that's really the only problem I had with this movie. While it's going through the MOS(™), it can feel slow, and we see the seams a bit. However, with Doctor Strange, they did have to go this route, as not only are we meeting a new hero, Dr. Stephen Strange, but we're getting an introduction to the magic side of the MCU.
Yes, we've dipped our toes into it before, with Thor's “Science as Magic” and Ant-Man's quantum reality, but this is a full dive into the deep end of the magic pool. So they couldn't really shake up the formula too much, they needed that framework to give people something to hold on to as we got to know the good Doctor.
I'm sure that they could have done something to make the strings not stand out so much, but I'm not sure what it could have been.
Regardless, even with the formula problem, Doctor Strange is a great movie. Benedict Cumberbatch is the Doctor of the title, a brilliant, talented surgeon who's a self-centered jerk (see Stark, Tony) who, after a horrific car crash robs him of most of the use of his hands, goes on a journey to try and find a way to heal them so he can become a surgeon again.
Which is how he ends up in Kamar-Taj, becomes friends with Mordo (Chiwetel “Kinky Boots” Ejiofor) and pupil of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), the Sorcerer Supreme, protector of Earth from all manner of mystic malevolence. Like Mads (Hannibal) Mikkelsen's Kaecilius, who wants to hand the world over to an extra-dimensional overlord
The entire cast is fantastic. I have to admit that I was with RevNews cohost Tegan in not being thrilled by Cumberbatch being cast in the roll, as he seems to be in all of the things. But he really nails Strange here, especially in his character arc where, unlike Stark (who he will be compared to relentlessly by fans and detractors alike, I'm sure) he not only realizes that he's been a bit of an arrogant jerk, he actually learns and grows from this knowledge.
He joins Lang and Thor as characters who have become better people by the end of their story, unlike Steve who's become even more of the good person he was when he started or, Tony's “well, I'm still a jerk, but I'm gonna try and only be a jerk towards bad people now."
Swinton is great as The Ancient One, but that's no surprise as I haven't seen her ever do a bad performance anywhere. Ejiofor's Mordo is a great mix of serious and driven yet having a core of humor and warmth as Strange's friend and guide through the mystic arts. And I really loved Benedict Wong's Wong, he really needed more screen time as the deadpan ultimate librarian.
Mikkelsen's Kaecilius also doesn't have a huge amount of screen time, but he has one of the best exchanges in the movie when he and Strange meet for the first time. He's no Loki, but he's one of the better villains to come along in the MCU, which, sadly, still could really use a deeper bench of good bad guys.
When it comes to the effects, that's where Doctor Strange shines. The sigils, the weapons, the different dimensions, it's all straight out if the high weirdness of Ditko's run on the character, with some mind-blowing psychic landscapes that put the quantum realm of Ant-Man in context and make it look like the kiddie pool. You need to see this movie on the biggest screen you can, and IMAX 3D if you can handle the motion sickness thing. The main action set piece is like watching people have a chase scene through an MC Escher gallery.
Doctor Strange is a great addition to the MCU, with a great cast, great effects and a lot of nifty Easter Eggs for Marvel fans. While it is weakened by our familiarity with the MOS(™), it is well worth watching, and I look forward to seeing the good Doctor meeting up with the rest of the MCU in the films ahead. By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth, don't miss it!