Film review: ‘Doctor Strange’

So I just saw “Doctor Strange” and had an unusually strong immediate opinion. Normally it takes me a few days to develop my thoughts for a review. Not this time!

Though I disagree with the general acclaim mainstream press have lauded on the film, I hardly feel like I wasted my cash on a ticket. A serviceable and enjoyable two hours, but I don’t feel the need to endlessly rewatch it like I have other MCU films and TV series. Anyway, here’s my review:

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange

Film: Doctor Strange

Director: Scott Derrickson

Genre: Superhero / science-fiction

Rating: 2.5/5

Your ability to enjoy “Doctor Strange,” the fourteenth (whew, we’re getting up there) installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, will depend entirely on whether you prefer style over substance.

“Doctor Strange” is one of the most visually impressive films in recent memory and an incredible argument for forking an extra few dollars over for the 3D theater experience. It’s also thin on plot, thinner on characterization and requires an entirely unrealistic suspension of disbelief.

Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by the fantastic characters in Marvel’s Netflix series, but “Doctor Strange’s” eclectic characters never elicit an emotional bond. Yes, television shows have more time to flesh out their characters but I don’t buy that excuse here. “Ant-Man’s” Scott Lang was hilarious and likable and even “Captain America: Civil War’s” Black Panther and Spidey felt great, even if they were add-ons.

Here, Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an arrogant asshole. I know, you’ve probably read those exact words in another review. That’s because the film repeats it over and over and there’s little character development to suggest other personality traits.

It’s no fault of Cumberbatch. His performance ranges from respectable to great, but raw acting ability has never really been an issue for the MCU films. Instead, the scripting simply never gives him, or most of the other performers, an opportunity to truly shine. Yes, the typical Marvel quips are predictably on point and help the flow — jokes about Wi-Fi and Beyoncé are particularly great — but they’re poor substitutes for likable characters with clear motivations.

Naysayers, if you can name three individuals in the film other than Strange and The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, one of the film’s standout performances), I’ll stand corrected.

The more concerning issue is that the plot feels incredibly rushed. Here’s the backstory: “Strange is a prestigious doctor, then he’s not.” The rest of the plot: “Exposition, genuinely awesome special effect-driven scenes to break up the jargon and fatigue, protagonist gets a bit stronger, repeat.”
Though Strange’s intense skepticism about the world’s fantastical and mythical secrets are both understandable and relatable, the sci-fi magic — ahem, sorcery — is nonetheless never adequately explained, a nagging issue that persists throughout the film.

Yes, this is a franchise with a flying Norse demigod, a giant green rage monster and a blind lawyer-turned-Batman, but “Doctor Strange” pushes the limits of believability. If you can turn off your brain or simply accept the wackiness, fine, but it’s all a little too “out there” to fully enjoy.

This all probably sounds quite harsh, but none of this is to say that “Doctor Strange” is an outright flop. The aforementioned trademark Marvel humor is thankfully present and is frequent enough to keep the film grounded whenever jargon threatens to take over. And although character depth is shaky at best, universally solid acting carries the film when the script can’t.

Finally, praise really must be given to the visuals. The “Inception” comparisons are obvious but well-deserved. “Doctor Strange” is a visual spectacle, with some scenes so fantastically trippy they nearly warrant the price of admission alone.

With that in mind, it goes without saying that many of the action scenes are suitably fantastic and supplemented by the focus on crazy sorcery. Though the weak plot inspires questions of the film’s long-term appeal, the artistic splendor alone may well warrant several repeated views. If indecipherable, Michael Bay “Transformers” cinematography is the stereotype for today’s science-fiction action, “Doctor Strange” is shining proof that creativity — and a hefty special effects budget — can go a long, long way.

At worst, “Doctor Strange” is a by-the-numbers Marvel sci-fi flick, and that’s not such a bad thing. While hazy plot and characters might kill its longevity, at the very least, “Doctor Strange” has the action, humor and visual bombast to pleasantly divert.

There are certainly worse ways to kill two hours. Just don’t forget your 3D glasses.

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