After a brilliant but arrogant surgeon loses the use of his hands in an accident, his search for healing takes him beyond science and medicine to strange realms of magic.
With new power comes new responsibility, as though that’s a common theme to all Marvel plots or something. Our reality is under threat, and Doctor Strange has to fully embrace the powers he only half-understands in order to fight back.
The film jumps around a lot, partly because it’s about people who can control space and time, but also because the narrative is choppy and uneven. It feels like a lot of connective tissue has been cut in the name of brevity, and so some relationships that are later leant on are poorly established; characters act based on issues and connections that haven’t been shown enough to matter to us.
The plot is overly complicated, with too many moving pieces and reversals; if the plot had been streamlined, it would have led to a stronger film – there could have been more focus on the stakes and the characters, rather than a rapid leaping between conflicts and resolution that are too stakeless and rushed to have much emotional weight.
Magic is pretty and sparkly, which is half the fun of high-magic fantasy things. You get to see people solve problems in innovative ways and with silver fire. However, like so many Marvel films, a lot of the magic-heavy scenes are part of large and lengthy set-pieces. Variety is important for exciting magic, but if the whole scene is a shifting-buildings or glowing chain one, then that variety gets pushed aside. The most interesting bits are when someone uses magic in unexpected ways, and those tend to happen anywhere except the big climactic scenes, which spreads the excitement a little thinly.
A lot of talented actors are on display, mostly well-used. Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly suited to play arrogant geniuses, and will probably find it difficult to ever leave that niche. Mainly though, the human interest comes from the minor characters and sidekicks rather than the central three wizards – people with understandable drives who can’t just manifest a new power to escape all issues.
I did particularly like the final conflict’s concept – it’s got unusual magic, emotional punch, and a new twist on the standard hero process of “lose until the upbeat music starts”. A hero focused on magic rather than punching lends himself more to clever resolutions, and I was pleased to see that coming through.
The general pattern with Marvel movies appears to be that the that the first one is entertaining and original, and then the next one becomes tired and formulaic as it is folded into the the awkward monstrosity that is the expanded universe. The plots get clunkier as they fill with references, and the charm of the original is lost. Doctor Strange seems like it might move in the opposite direction – the first film is weighed down by setup and posturing, but the next film, with all that out of the way, might be more engaging.