Scott Derrickson is a director that you probably have not heard of before unless you are a true horror movie aficionado. Previously, he’s brought us The Exorcism of Emily Rose, both Sinister movies, and the film which probably got him this gig, Deliver Us From Evil. That is not a resume you’d expect from the director of a Marvel film, and particularly not from someone with the unenviable job of giving us another origin story movie which has to not only keep up Marvel’s now high standards and introduce an entire facet of the Marvel Universe which up until now we hadn’t seen – the mystical, multi-dimensional world (Asgard not withstanding, as that’s been explained away by weird science). Derrickson was handed a tall order with Doctor Strange, and he does an admirable, if not quite incredible, job.
If you’re not familiar with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), well that’s what the movie is about, so I won’t spoil much for you, but he is a character who was established in 1963 – the same year as the X-Men – and has been the Marvel Universe’s resident Sorcerer Supreme for most of that time. His adventures center on keeping mystical enemies such as demons, powerful wizards, and extra-dimensional threats at bay. The other dimensions of the Marvel Universe, as well as magic, are the most confusing and unfleshed out bits of their lore, as you are literally dealing with the infinite. So outside of a few integral characters and places which appear time and time again, the writers really have no rules to follow or norms to work with. It does mean limitless room for creativity, yes, but it also means there are no true anchors from which to work with a story. In this, the film version of Doctor Strange, the other dimensions and extra dimensional threats are left just as vague as they are in the comic source material, but magic seems just a bit better explained, even if there is still a lot of room open for real explanation.
There is a lot of good to be said about Doctor Strange, far more good than bad. The dialogue is witty, sharp, and still natural. The characters are detailed, true to the source material, and are the source of the strong themes of understanding your connections to the world and where you fit within it. The pacing is near perfect, there was never a time where boredom set in, nor where I felt I needed things to slow down for a moment. The acting was excellent on all fronts, with a veteran cast giving their all. Then there are the absolutely astounding visuals. This film is a thing of pure beauty, from the alien landscapes, to the magical effects, and to the way a certain magical relic is so incredibly well done that a non-living object with no dialogue ends up becoming one of the film’s most entertaining characters.
The writers and Derrickson do an excellent job of showing how magic works in this world, not by giving intricacies of how and why it works, but by showing what it is capable of, how it is learned, and differentiating between different areas of study and focus. Making a relic is not the same as casting a spell which is not the same as travelling through time and space. Trying to explain how these things work would be a losing battle, so the film maker’s are intelligent enough to know this and give us just enough to know that they do work, that they have rules, and there is even a sort of “science” to them.
Where the movie falls apart, is in its finale, unfortunately. No spoilers, but in the film’s climax the excellent visuals give way to a hodge podge of undefined, low quality imagery. The excellent rules set up suddenly don’t seem to matter in any meaningful way, and while the final solution is creative and nothing we’ve seen from a Marvel film before (and, does an excellent job at showing why Doctor Strange is considered one of the most intelligent people in the Marvel Universe), it is given no context to show why Strange’s plan would actually work. This is the inherent problem with magic in a fictional universe, the authors can too easily make things too fast and loose, too “anything can happen”, and without hard fast rules we lose the context of true stakes.
Doctor Strange keeps up Marvel’s reputation for excellence. It is a very well written, well acted, and visually astonishing movie. It has meaningful things to say, as well. It has some serious missteps, primarily in its finale and also in the way it keeps up the Marvel tradition of not so interesting villains (we need more Lokis, Kingpins, and Killgraves, Marvel), but overall it is a worthy, if not top notch, addition to the Marvel canon.
Rating: 7.8 out of 10