Rating: 4 Stars
The following review contains spoilers.
Dr. Stephen Strange is a brilliant surgeon, but also kind of an arrogant jerk. After a terrible car accident, his hands are damaged beyond repair, and his entire identity is shattered, sending him in a spiral of despair. He desperately follows rumors of a miracle cure to Nepal, where he meets a teacher known as The Ancient One. She reveals to him a world of a magic, and accepts him as a student. But before Strange can become a true Master of the Mystic Arts, he finds himself a reluctant soldier in a long-standing war between followers of The Ancient One and followers of an other-dimensional being known as Dormammu.
The visual effects in this movie are incredible. From the very first scene where The Ancient One pursues Kaecilius through the streets, the way the buildings fold and ripple and expand and contract on one another is dazzling. Later when The Ancient One sends Strange plummeting through a kaleidoscope of dimensions I just stared with my mouth hanging open, not quite believing what I was seeing (in a mainstream blockbuster movie, no less). I even love the little touches, like the way magic sparks and shakes like the sorcerers are wielding an incredible power they can barely constrain.
But they’re not just great effects for their own sake, they’re used in some exciting and interesting ways. When Strange is rewinding time to save Hong Kong, I loved creative moments like Kaecilius being trapped in a rebuilt wall or one of his zealots ending up in a fish tank.
Doctor Strange is absolutely loaded with great actors. Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One is wise, inscrutable, and charming. Chiwetel Ejiofor absolutely commands your attention whenever he’s around. Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius conveys his ideas and his motivations in a way that you actually find yourself wondering if maybe he’s the secret good guy in this whole thing.
I give this movie tons of points for actually coming up with a clever way to defeat the villain and save the day, not just punching him harder or concentrating more on a magic beam so it overwhelms another competing magic beam. Introducing time into a timeless dimension, making it into a trap Dormammu is desperate to escape, was a stroke of genius.
It feels like there’s something missing from the third act. Dr. Strange’s self-sacrifice and willingness to subject himself to endless deaths in the Dark Dimension is a heroic act, certainly, but we don’t get the full impact of his heroism. One, it feels impersonal; two, they elide how many times he’s actually killed (what if we knew it was hundreds or even thousands?); and three, it’s such a clever idea it’s clear from the start Strange is going to win. It doesn’t feel like he’s truly learning the lesson of, “It’s not about you,” it feels like he’s developed a plan so crazy it just might work.
The film seems to be setting up a more personal act of heroism but it doesn’t deliver it. In the first act, Strange and Dr. Palmer argue about Strange’s conviction that the work he’s doing is fundamentally more important than merely saving a few individuals lives in the E.R. In the second act, he hears the same sentiment very clearly reflected back at him by Kaecilius, who says sacrificing a few people is nothing compared to saving the world from the ultimate enemy of time. But where’s the moment in the third act when Strange puts everything on the line to save one innocent life?
Going into this, I didn’t think I would like Benedict Cumberbatch’s American accent. In the end it was fine, but I still think his performance might have been more powerful with his native accent. What I ended up finding endlessly more distracting was his overall appearance. To me, especially in the second half when he’s in full sorcerer mode, his hair looked like a wig, and his goatee looked drawn on with an eyebrow pencil. He never truly looked (or sounded) like an actual person versus a very talented cosplayer.
There are some moments in the film that made me genuinely laugh (like the wi-fi password, or Wong asking if the people who find Strange funny all work for him), but a lot of the humor felt forced and out-of-character. I didn’t believe that the Stephen Strange we’d gotten to know so far would ever deliver that run-on “gag,” calling out every one-named performer (“Adele? Madonna? Drake?”) to Wong. The whole “Mister Doctor” bit was superficially funny, but again felt out-of-character. I’m fine with the Cloak of Levitation having some limited sentience, but turning it into a full-on Disney cartoon sidekick felt a step too far.
No one ever says “Sling ring, do your thing!”