Movie Review - Trippy Effects Can't Save 'Doctor Strange' From Derivative Storytelling


Over the last few years there has been growing concern in Hollywood that the overwhelming number of superhero movies each year will cause fatigue among movie goers, much like the Western in the 70s, and people will stop coming. While I’m sure Doctor Strange will do well at the box office, there’s a good possibility it will be the beginning of superhero fatigue.

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect as Doctor Strange and excels at his craft. The special effects are trippy, mind-boggling, exciting, and like nothing I’ve seen since Inception -- but the story is derivative, lazy, and lacking on a number of levels. There are only so many ways to tell the same story and in the past Marvel has ridden this pony carefully, trying to make sure they aren’t copying themselves. Unfortunately, this time, they have. They plagiarize Iron Man and Ant-Man at every turn, but a less polished copy unsure of what kind of genre it wants to be or what kind of tone it wants to set. For a brand that set the bar high with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s unfortunate they wasted Cumberbatch’s talent by depending so much on surreal special effects and not the story.

Directed by Scott Derrickson and written by Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, and C. Robert Cargill, Doctor Strange is about Dr. Stephen Strange  (Cumberbatch), a renowned neurosurgeon who loses the use of his hands and seeks out a guru (Tilda Swinton) in hopes his hands will be healed, but instead is sucked on a journey into the mystic arts.
Benedict Cumberbatch never disappoints. Even when I think I have him pinned down, he changes slight details about his persona and proves me wrong. He is perhaps one of the better actors of our time and that makes his presence in this lacking movie even more frustrating. Without a doubt he is a perfect casting choice, not just because he’s a good actor but because he looks strikingly like the comic book character. If anything, he elevates the movie and gives it the personality it needs. The little details he puts in his character, from the accent to the slight facial expressions, is perfect.
The writing for his slightly snarky personality reminds me of a mild Tony Stark. He’s cocky, arrogant, and stubborn with a lot of money, but it all changes when he gets in an accident. If that doesn’t sound like a carbon copy of Tony Stark, I don’t know what does. Scott Derrickson’s direction feels bland and by the numbers like he is just trying to appease the producers and Marvel fans, but not give his own distinct voice. That’s not to say it is poor or not living up to Marvel’s brand of quality, but instead he only hits the mark rather than reaching for something more. While I might expect this kind of direction from the Thor franchise, Doctor Strange is weird enough with its content that trying to break boundaries and experiment would make sense. Instead, Derrickson plays it safe and it shows.
Of the things it does well, the special effects shine. Psychedelic is the only word that can best describe the kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, and rapid, bizarre movement, thrusting Doctor Strange and his companions all over the universe. The visuals are so extreme it might make you sick to your stomach, but it’s mostly good fun.


The core of any film is the story. If that doesn’t measure up, there is little reason to care or enjoy a film in the first place. Doctor Strange's story fails on multiple levels. First, the romantic relationship between Strange and Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) is so forced, convoluted and watery it’s almost an insult. Besides Christine’s character being one dimensional and a plot device, their relationship is an obvious box being checked by the screenwriter, barely giving it any other consideration. As the relationship progresses, it reaches a point where it’s ignored and give no resolution. Second, the villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) has a paper thin motivation and it’s hardly enough reason to be against him. Most of his scenes include looking angry and waving his hand around to conjure up a new spell and only when he talks with Doctor Strange (one of the better scenes in the movie) does he become somewhat compelling, but barely. Third, and the worst of all, the story is a derivative origin story, plagiarizing Iron Man and Ant-Man. It’s hard to tell origin stories in a creative and compelling way, and while I don’t blame the writer entirely for the lack of imagination, the lack of genre and tone stand out the most. Ant-Man and Captain American: The Winter Soldier, while both superhero movies, understood they were at their core a heist film and a spy thriller. Doctor Strange doesn’t have a core genre. Marvel is standing at a crossroads. They can challenge their storytellers to push the boundaries and take risks, or sit on their laurels and play it safe. Pushing the boundaries will help stave off superhero fatigue while the latter will only make it worse. With Doctor Strange, it’s only making it worse -- if they continue down this road I can see them riding a slippery slope to obscurity, desperate to get people back. If you’re a Marvel fan, the chances are you’ll watch Doctor Strange and enjoy yourself, but if you take off the rosy 3D glasses and think about it, it won’t satisfy.    
GRADE: 4/10
    Photos courtesy of: Marvel Studios    

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