Dr. Strange is a big leap forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe in terms of special effects. MCU movies’ special effects tend to be adequate, generally fine but occasionally a little cheap looking. That is not the case in Dr. Strange. While it makes no effort to differentiate itself from other superhero movies in terms of plot or characters, it does raise the bar with its trippy and impressive special effects.
On the surface there is a lot to like about Dr. Strange. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stephen Strange, a talented but arrogant neuro-surgeon. After a car accident destroys his use of his hands, he becomes obsessive about finding a way to repair the damage. That leads him to Kathmandu, where he is initiated into training in the mystical arts. It is essentially the same story that Marvel showed us in Iron Man. And in Thor. And in Ant-Man. Dr. Strange is the same as all the other Marvel heroes, and his story is the same. Like the rest of those movies, it plays out the same sort of origin story, hitting all the same beats in essentially the same order. Unlike Ant-Man or Iron Man, though, Dr. Strange’s attempts at humor generally fall flat. The best gag is with his cloak of levitation, which acts much like Aladdin’s flying carpet with a mind of its own, only the movie keeps going back to it with consistently diminishing returns.
There is a slew of potentially interesting secondary characters, all played by talented performers who are given absolutely nothing to do. The worst is Rachel McAdams as a completely empty love interest of sorts. Her character, Christine, has nothing to do but be the target of Strange’s “wit.” Tilda Swinton’s role as The Ancient One should have made the movie, but even she can’t make something from nothing this time. While she supposedly plays Strange’s teacher and mentor, the movie doesn’t give enough examples of her teaching to make any later revelations have any impact. The only character that actually feels like a character is Mordo, who acts as the Ancient One’s second in command and actually does more training with Strange than anyone else. Like the rest of the details of Kamar-Taj, what exactly is Mordo’s deal is never exactly clear, but it is clearer than anyone else’s.
While the characters and story are largely flat, the visuals make up for it. While the movie spends a lot of time using very normal portrayals of magic, glowing flaming lines and symbols that are as unnecessary as they are uninteresting, the way the movie shows the various characters warping reality is stunning. Dr. Strange takes the folding city bits from Inception and bumps them up to 11. During one of the big fight scenes they turn the entirety of New York City into essentially a 3D kaleidoscope. It is stunning, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a movie before. The special effects are consistently jaw-droppingly excellent.
Dr. Strange ends up being kind of a mixed bag. The story provides absolutely nothing new, not even on the level of Ant-Man’s turning the hero into a petty crook. This is the same super hero origin movie we’ve seen a dozen times before. It is not a badly done rendition of the story, but it feels really tired. However, the special effects are enough to keep someone watching. It left me constantly wanting to like it more, even as I grew bored of its characters and plot. It has such a great cast and a hook that I am a sucker for, but it only brings a visual pop to the table.