As a member of LaughingPlace, I see a lot of movies. I also usually see the films in non-traditional ways. Many times I am on the Disney lot a week or two before the general release, in a room with film bloggers and critics. While this is a neat experience, it also removes some of the fun of seeing a big blockbuster. First, you’re missing the bombardment of TV commercials the days before release that build the anticipation. Secondly, the film just starts without the trailers that build excitement before the main feature. But most of all, you miss the die-hard fans that lay the foundation of an excited communal film-going experience. Because of this, you can’t help but think about the review or feature you will be writing and what angle it will take even as you’re still watching the film.
I share this insight, for one reason: to make the point that, while seeing films this way is cool, it is not as much fun as the experience you get on opening night; it is something you do for “work,” in order to write a piece like the one you are reading. However, for the first time, in a long time, I had tons of fun at a screening and now find myself counting down the days until the general release just so I can see it again. In fact, screening Doctor Strange may have been the most fun I’ve had at the movies since Marvel’s The Avengers.
Is Doctor Strange a movie that can be free of criticism? No. The character will feature inevitable comparison to Tony Stark as a successful cocky individual man who ends up being humbled. Of course, he also needs to learn the “with great power, comes great responsibility” which is essential to any super person to become a superhero.
Doctor Strange tries to avoid the “retread” discussion by playing with the structure of the second and third acts, which veer it away from the typical superhero film structure. Without giving too much away, I find this to be a wise choice. While the start may seem familiar, it is not as obvious as to where the movie is headed once the meat of the film begins.
Before I get too far, I need to mention the outstanding special effects. This is a film not only deserves but also demands to be seen in a premium theater and in 3D due to the mind-bending sequences, which are used for action as well as other moments of storytelling. It is not that just the technology is impressive, it is how that tech is used for art and to propel the story, that makes this film a touchstone in digital film-making. I look forward to learning more about how they did what they did and hopefully some of their tricks will be revealed in bonus feature segments and other outlets in the future.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the acting here is nothing but top notch considering the impressive cast that Marvel has assembled. What surprised me is that Benedict Cumberbatch disappeared into the role of Stephen Strange. After the initial adjustment of getting used to his American accent, I never once again thought that I was watching Cumberbatch play Strange, which can often happen with high-profile actors — I was watching just watching Stephen Strange. This is a noticeable difference when compared to Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. Downey Jr. just always seems like he his Tony Stark, day in and day out while Cumberbatch transformed himself into Doctor Strange.
My other favorite character is Strange’s cape. You see, the cape has a mind of its own. The digital acting made me fall in love with it in the same way I fell in love with the magic carpet in Aladdin. I hope that, as Strange progresses through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that the cape keeps its personality and doesn’t just become a magical accessory.
I also want to mention two things about the writing before I offer a word of warning. First, the humor is spectacular. While the film could lean into some very grim concepts, it dips into the funny side to lighten the mood several times. I don’t just mean a light moment in a serious situation, I mean actual comedy that is masterfully inserted as to be a breath of fresh air and not a distraction.
I also split the Marvel films into two categories: the team-up adventures, such as Avengers or Civil War, and the solo ones, such as Ant-Man and Iron Man 3. In that case, no solo film has as masterfully integrated itself into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There are no cheap cameos or distracting references. Instead, we get moments that show Strange is part of the bigger universe that build excitement for what is to come without sidelining the main plot. If Doctor Strange doesn’t build your anticipation for at least three upcoming Marvel films, then you must be watching a different cut.
So here is my warning: Anytime you introduce magic, with its reality-bending and space-time modulating abilities, you are just asking for plot holes. I am sure any criticism of Doctor Strange will be a result of this. I am sure that if you really think this movie through there will be logical questions and things that just don’t make sense. I have yet to see a movie of this sort where those questions don’t come up. In a way, the film acknowledges this. The Ancient One makes it a point to teach Strange that not everything makes sense and to stop applying our logical framework to concepts that are too grand to understand. There is more to the mystical world than you can comprehend with your mind. In fact, this is the key lesson Strange needs to learn to transition from the medical world to the mystical one. I am going to follow this lesson as well as a moviegoer and not overthink Doctor Strange. Instead, I am going let my mind rest and enjoy the film with my heart and soul because, on those levels, the movie delivers to the highest degrees.
So is it November 4 yet? I give Doctor Strange 5 out of 5 mystical relics.