Doctor Stephen Strange may be well-known to Marvel comics fans, but to us movie fans on the outside, he's relatively obscure. I went into Doctor Strange with fresh eyes and hardly any expectations, and despite having visual similarities to Batman Begins and Inception from what I could see in the trailers, I had hoped for something original and outside the norm for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I may not have come away moved by the story or deeply invested in the characters, but damn there were some mind-bendingly gorgeous visuals. I'd almost recommend seeing the film entirely for its special effects action scenes, but then I'd be ignoring the great performances from the cast and the outstanding work from the production designers. The star of the show may be the surface-level elements, but what a shiny surface it is!
"I don't believe in fairy tales..."
After a hand-crippling car accident, the arrogant and self-important neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) struggles to find a way to heal himself with Western science. So he turns to the East, travelling to Kamar-Taj to meet someone known to heal severe injuries using willpower and spiritual practices. When Strange meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), she shocks him by separating his spirit from his body and showing him the psychedelic wonders of the multiverse. Training under her and an advanced student named Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Strange excels at learning the art of sorcery and can soon bend reality and time to his will. He may even be doing a bit too well, with his blatant disregard for "the rules." This makes The Ancient One uneasy, for meanwhile an ex-student of hers named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is plotting to summon a dark demon from another dimension, and it could spell the end of the world as we know it.
"Did you put mushrooms in my tea?"
There's nothing particularly wrong with the story. It all works quite well, using the proper plotting tropes to move its story and characters along at a relatively fast pace. The problem is that so much of it is obvious and inventive, such as when characters like Strange's love interest Christine (Rachel McAdams) tell him things like "all you care about is yourself" straight to his face. It's awfully easy to tell his character arc from the very first scene, making honest investment in his journey a bit harder to achieve. There's also very little breathing room to really get to know the characters, as each scene involves us discovering something new about the world, the magic, or the ancient battle between good and evil. Exposition is also the movie's Achilles heel; quite a few scenes are devoted to info-dumping so that we know what's going on in this rather complicated world. While there are plenty of interesting visuals to accompany said exposition, it still doesn't make for dramatic storytelling. Also, the less we talk about the villains, the better.
"Forget everything that you think you know..."
Where the film excels is in those nifty visual effects sequences. City blocks fold, people defy gravity, and the world behaves like it was cut up by a kaleidoscope. There's even a spectacular time-reversing scene that is nothing if not the best I've ever seen of its type. Doctor Strange himself looks fantastic in his final getup, and Cumberbatch fits the role perfectly. His American accent is... not the best... but how he embodies the character, and that's what matters. The supporting cast is great as well. I wish we could have seen a bit more of McAdams, but I suppose that's what sequels are for. The score by Michael Giacchino is good, like all other MCU movies, but not memorable in the slightest. I never would have guessed that the same man who wrote music for Up and The Incredibles could deliver something so average. I say that with love, Mikey.
"So you joined a cult?"
Director Scott Derrickson and the studio clearly put a lot of effort into this project, but most of it went to crafting those truly incredible action/spectacle scenes. This is one of those rare movies that I would suggest seeing in 3D, because the filmmakers use it to enhance the trippiness of the different realms and dimensions. While the script and dialogue (which makes sure to slip in a few solid jokes) are just fine, the problem is that all the elements are pretty boilerplate when you get right down to it. Hell, even within the MCU we've had several films (Iron Man and Ant-Man) with extremely similar plot structures and that contained nearly identical character arcs. The movie may be dull in spots, but it sure knew how to distract me with so much beautiful, shiny, gorgeous, trippy, what were we talking about?