When I started going back watching and reviewing all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in order in August 2019, I knew it was going to take a while and be somewhat grueling to get through them all — especially the more mediocre ones. However, since I had never seen some of them, I also wanted to watch each one in proper order to properly evaluate the entire canon. I figured I wouldn’t be done by May 2020 — when the next MCU film, Black Widow, was originally supposed to debut in theaters — but I really thought I would probably get pretty close. Well, not so much: I still have nine more movies to review after I finish this one for Doctor Strange. Fortunately, I have been granted an extra six months to catch up thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on the entire Hollywood release calendar; Black Widow won’t hit theaters until November 2020 at the earliest. (Which means I won’t review it until sometime in 2021 since I need the Blu-ray disc to do hi-def screenshots.)
Anyway, there is still plenty of time to sift through the rest of Phase Three of the MCU and get fully caught up before Black Widow commences Phase Four. An aside: I just looked up Black Widow on Wikipedia and the premise states that it takes place following the events of 2016‘s Captain America: Civil War. Given that she dies in Avengers: Endgame, why not just make Black Widow the twelfth Phase Three film? Heck, why not divide the twelve films into Phase Three and Phase Four, so each has six entries just like Phase One and Phase Two? Avengers: Infinity War is, like Civil War, a turning point in the franchise; it would make much more sense if it were the first Phase Four movie instead of the seventh Phase Three movie. And since Black Widow is supposed to take place after Civil War and (presumably) at some point prior to Endgame, wouldn’t it make sense for Black Widow to be included in the Infinity Saga (which is limited to Phase One through Three)?
Perhaps the film will contain some surprises when we finally get to watch it, but I still question its role as the leadoff hitter in Phase Four. Batting sixth in Phase Four is Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, which is currently slated to be released March 22, 2022. Clearly this means some people must have liked Doctor Strange (2016), the second movie in Phase Three, a hell of a lot more than I did when I watched it for the first time ever just now. In my mind, this is easily the worst movie in the entire Infinity Saga I’ve reviewed so far — it’s very, very mediocre. Despite some great visuals, I found this to be downright silly, largely uninvolving and depressingly average, its story suffering from a surplus of stolen ideas and weak characters lacking in relatability. The “stolen ideas” accusation is probably a tad strong, actually — obviously, much of this surely has existed in comic book form for a while.
Still, it’s hard not to watch this and think it’s a really shallow pastiche of movies I would much rather be watching instead. Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) winds up in some kind of fantastical temple in Kathmandu — as in, the capital of Nepal — to learn MCU kung fu from a white, female version of Morpheus (Tilda Swinton) named the Ancient One. There are further comparisons to the Wachowskis’ 1999 landmark film The Matrix: the bad guys, to the extent that you can call them characters, sure do behave a lot like the Agents in that film. Like the Agents, they have a habit of appearing out of nowhere every now and then; here, they have the ability to teleport through space and time using wormholes. What’s more, they are led by a Mr. Smith-like Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who never has much of anything interesting to say and is easily the blandest villain the MCU has yet produced.
Part of the issue is the sheer noise Mikkelsen has to contend with in all of his scenes; he fails to stand out when both sonically and visually, the film is constantly cranked up to 11 all around him. For example, there is a key showdown late in the film’s second act between Kaecilius and the Ancient One with skyscrapers folding up à la Inception all around them. (And make no mistake, it’s ripped straight from Inception.) In Inception, however, seeing Paris fold on top of itself is a moment of quiet wonder that is given the space to breathe, allowing the audience to take it all in. Doctor Strange, unfortunately, is all flash and bright color: The proceedings are queasily disorienting, the rules and logic are poorly defined, the hero’s powers seem pretty arbitrary, and the film’s stakes never feel very high. It’s one of those movies where you eventually give up trying to sort everything out and just let it keep going and going until at last everything is allowed to finally end.
And it’s not that origin story films can’t work this late into the MCU proceedings; I did see Captain Marvel (2019) when it was in theaters and thought it was a lot of fun and a welcome change of pace. But given that both Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel are the only two entries in Phase Three that are true origin stories, it’s clear that Marvel and Kevin Feige correctly sensed that audiences would only have so much tolerance remaining for entire movies dedicated specifically to introducing new characters when Civil War had just kicked things up a gear. Spider-Man obviously had been the subject of two recent takes on the character’s origins and certainly was not in need of another one, and Black Panther likely needed some kind of prior introduction before his first film as the headliner or audiences probably wouldn’t make the connection between Wakanda and the rest of the world the Avengers inhabit.
Introducing both during Civil War was certainly a curious move but was also a pretty shrewd one. The unintended consequence of that shrewd move is that Doctor Strange is a film that never feels like it’s of any importance whatsoever — even though it introduces yet another Infinity Stone. For those keeping score, Doctor Strange gives us our first look at the green Time Stone. This is the fifth one to appear, after the blue Space Stone (Thor), yellow Mind Stone (The Avengers), red Reality Stone (Thor: The Dark World) and purple Power Stone (Guardians of the Galaxy), though we won’t see the tesseract become the Space Stone or the Aether become the Reality Stone until later on in Avengers: Infinity War. Despite knowing we would being seeing Strange’s powers surface again later on in the MCU, I frankly just couldn’t get very interested in anything he was doing here in his debut outing.
I won’t dispute that visually Doctor Strange is quite impressive, but ultimately it doesn’t prove to be enough since there fundamentally isn’t anything new in this movie. Just about everything reeks of formula. Stephen Strange is a talented surgeon and an arrogant asshole. While this could have been taken in a lot of interesting directions, the movie instead settles for the predictable: Strange’s arrogance gets him in a car accident and injuries to his hands strip him of his powers as an elite surgeon. By deciding to bury Strange’s almost Bond-like cool beneath an anger so unpleasant and bitter, the film ultimately squanders any relatability the character has left in the first act. This sets up a rather long trudge to the end, and even though the movie gets louder and brighter, it’s never particularly involving.
Although it’s certainly interesting to watch a practitioner of Western medicine travel to the East to learn how to fix himself, this dynamic doesn’t really last past the scene Strange arrives at the Kamar-Taj sorcerer facility in Kathmandu and meets the Ancient One. And while I readily admit I don’t always absorb all of an MCU movie’s details on the first pass, I do usually make a pretty good attempt to actually understand what the hell is going on when I write these reviews. Well, this time I definitely feel less confident in my grasp of the plot than normal — it’s less than surprising to me that a cursory glance of the film’s plot summary on Wikipedia reveals some details that escaped my comprehension. For example, the following sentence: “Strange learns that Earth is protected from threats from other dimensions by a shield generated from three buildings called Sanctums, in New York City, London, and Hong Kong, which are all directly accessible from Kamar-Taj.”
This seems like the kind of exposition that must have been conveyed via dialogue at some point, but honestly I have no memory of hearing about it. Given the sheer amount of ADHD-style visuals and the consistently high level of volume, it’s likely I just tuned a lot of the noise out and turned my brain off. Which means I’m probably not giving this movie a fair shake, but so be it. Maybe on a rewatch I will care more, but I doubt it — I can’t remember the last time I watched a movie this intent on distracting me from itself. And that’s a shame, because Doctor Strange does have some positive qualities. Like all MCU movies, the actors are solid and it continues to be refreshing to see the cast rounded out with dramatic actors even if many of them don’t have enough to do. We will be getting a sequel though, so hopefully Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Stuhlbarg will have more screen time in the future.
Since the upcoming sequel contains the word “multiverse,” I suppose I should touch on where the magic in Doctor Strange comes from. As the Ancient One explains, this is one of infinite universes, and the sorcerers in the film can draw power from the other universes and use it for magic. Other things to keep track of are the astral plane, where the souls exists apart from the body; and the mirror dimension, which provides a duplicate copy of sorts of the world (separated by a mirror-like veneer); and the dark dimension, which is ruled by the evil Dormammu and lacks a linear sense of time. The final showdown takes place in the dark dimension, and Strange creates a time loop with the Time Stone that causes him to respawn each time he is killed. Finally, Dormammu just gives up. It’s not exactly the most dramatically satisfying conclusion you’ll see in movies.
It also is more than a little reminiscent of Christopher Nolan‘s 2014 sci-fi adventure Interstellar. All the talk of time being represented spatially and extra dimensions and higher-dimensional space and multiverses will surely remind you of that film. Furthermore, each film features a protagonist that enters a tesseract to save Earth. The result is an expensive film that is sufficiently well made but ultimately pretty thinly scripted. With Iron Man, Marvel perfected the cantankerous hero; Tony Stark is a self-centered asshole but he’s never an unlikable or unsympathetic one because of his personable, jokey style. Benedict Cumberbatch is a wonderful actor, but Doctor Strange is unfortunately a character that is neither likable nor sympathetic; not because he, like Stark, is selfish and arrogant, but because he is so brooding and inward-facing. It’s clear that Marvel wanted to make a movie about a less likable character, but they never have the balls to ever give Strange true antihero status, which is disappointing.
If you are interested in reading about how Doctor Strange looks and sounds in 4K, I would recommend checking out the review of the 4K Blu-ray release on Blu-ray.com. I concur with the reviewer that the film looks pretty solid in 4K resolution and that the expanded HDR color depth really comes in handy during scenes like the finale where bright colors dominate. Keep in mind that Doctor Strange was finished on a 2K digital intermediate (or DI), so the 4K version of the film is an upscaled version of that 2K image as opposed to a true 4K image.