Doctor Strange Review

Matt Donato

Reviewed by:
On October 27, 2016
Last modified:October 30, 2016


Doctor Strange is all about the razzle-dazzle, where spectacle elements are good enough to save a more clunky, weightless Marvel origin story.

Doctor Strange Review

Doctor Strange is the psychedelic kung-fu spectacle that Marvel hoped director Scott Derrickson would deliver, but it’s got a strange problem – the doctor himself. Benedict Cumberbatch was considered dream casting by Cumberbitches everywhere once Marvel paged their newest hero, yet after 155 minutes of strangeness, I’m still waiting for mister – sorry – DOCTOR Strange to win me over.

An opening fight scene resembling Christopher Nolan’s NYC origami (Inception) introduces a new dimension of Marvel entertainment, and even trippier hallway-tumbling, universe-hurdling visuals go places Captain America could only dream of – yet none of that builds character. Don’t worry, it’s worth the price of admission (even in 3D), just focus more on taking in the sights than dissecting exposition and buildup.

Cumberbatch stars as the mystifying master of space and time, Doctor Stephen Strange. Like most Marvel heroes, his powers are earned the hard way. Stephen is an egotistical surgeon concerned only about his perfect operational record, who suddenly finds himself severely injured after his overcompensating sports car flips (many times down a mountain). He’s left with massive nerve damage in both hands, which will most likely keep him from ever working in the medical field again.

After exhausting Western medicine, he travels to Kathmandu where he meets “The Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton) and her enlightened sect. They take Strange in, promising to strengthen his spirit and soul to the point of salvation. He’s arrogant and doubting at first, but then Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) attacks with his band of bastard Zealots. Before long, Doctor Strange is using his knowledge to bend reality and fend off Kaecilius’ attacks, proving to be a much more prolific student than The Ancient One could have ever envisioned.

The problem is, Doctor Strange never establishes himself as a heavyweight superhuman like (most) other Avengers do. His smug, smarmy attitude translates into frustration and pain, so redemption can be sought through The Ancient One’s teachings. In construction, his arced trajectory is dangerously cut-and-dry. In practice, exposition bogs down advancement, and bland, chalky humor seems out of place.

Strange’s world is certainly a tad darker than other Marvel efforts, but jokes are attempted and Cumberbatch isn’t as wittily hypnotizing when delivering punchlines (unlike Strange’s hilarious personified cloak). There’s never a breakout moment where the decision to snag Cumberbatch is fully paid off in performance – except possibly in a post credits scene. In other words, Cumberbatch’s introduction doesn’t strike with the supernatural gravitas we’d expect, which puts a stronger emphasis on upcoming crossover opportunities that hopefully shine brighter.

That said, Derrickson proves his worth in a matter of minutes. Plotting begins with Kaecilius challenging The Ancient One to a New York street brawl, and immediately we’re slugged by the visual trickery that defines Doctor Strange. Colors, shapes and patterns morph in front of our very eyes, caught up in the wonderment of infinite improbabilities and outcomes we struggle to comprehend.

When Strange is thrust through a whirling vortex of neon lights (He’s gone faster than plaid!), so begins one of the more beautiful sequences of not just Marvel’s canon, but 2016’s cinematic bounty. We’re trapped in a giant kaleidoscope/lava lamp/Squad tank combination with connecting tubes like light-speed water slides, thrown to the deepest reaches of our creative understanding. Pop some magic mushrooms before your screening and find yourself transported to another world, guided by Strange himself. You’ll feel oh-so small, overwhelmed by the boundless steps towards a mind-blowing Marvel universe that’s opened wider than ever before.

Action sequences become complicated parables, flipping gravity and spinning perception as if some larger being keeps tumbling a box containing our cast. Monstrous skyscrapers suddenly become the floor beneath Strange and his zen-master companion, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), while they’re whipped around by Kaecilius’ manipulation of…well…everything.

In the Mirror Dimension, no harm can come to reality. All bets are off, which means those powerful enough can reassemble and distort to their will. Kaecilius shoots ripples through a horizontal office building that Doctor Strange is running up, only to send him plummeting downward through cityscapes that are currently folding into one another. Time rewinds while Strange and some Zealots duke it out in Hong Kong, as he uses re-constructing structures to ensnare his enemies. Don’t expect ground-and-pound fighting like The Hulk or Thor might berserker their way through. Doctor Strange is a warrior of knowledge, and his most impactful blows require smarts, not brawn.

Much was said about Tilda Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One, but the gender-swapping (and, sigh, whitewashing) works despite cultural sidestepping. Swinton is wonderful in the role, and strikes the divine essence of a holy believer tending to her flock. Ejiofor, meanwhile, takes up the mantle of her right-hand man, who sneaks jokes about WIFI passwords into conversation while dishing out beatings aided by special boots. Then you’ve got Benedict Wong as Wong (creative), a librarian who doesn’t quite understand the draw of Strange’s humor.

All of these allies, however, overshadow the cloned nature of their foe Kaecilius, who both sadly and unsurprisingly continues a trend of Marvel not being able to provide villains worth their hero’s struggle. Mikkelsen does just fine, but all the intergalactic eyeshadow in Thanos’ reach can’t distract from how one-note and throwaway his play at immortality becomes.

Oh, and Rachel McAdams actually does the whole “surprised ex-lover whose crush is now a spiritual God-being” shtick pretty well – another character given more stand-out moments than Mikkelsen’s backstabbing monster.

Doctor Strange is much like Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man, another hollow Marvel origin story existing simply to introduce a character whose impact is felt 10x larger in later “Phase” injections. The story at hand unfolds merely to establish said character as a living, breathing form, proceeding through the motions so more fun can be had later. That being said, Doctor Strange gains a few more points by pushing digital boundaries instead of relying on expected comedics (Ant-Man), but Stephen Strange’s introduction will get more “Well now what?” reactions versus exclamations like “Holy sh#t, THE DOCTOR IS IN!”


As I said, Cumberbatch doesn’t exactly burst into the Marvel universe like a levitating sorcerer who can control the fabric of time should. Chemistry between castmates is slight and Cumberbatch himself struggles with shallow scripting that’s more focused on giving us a full-piece Doctor Strange toy to gaze upon. This is an origin for origin’s sake, because Phase 3 has big plans for Stephen Strange in, like, three years!

Seeing Scott Derrickson go from horrific nightmares to Marvel blockbusters is something the genre fan in me can’t praise more. The director challenges the unbelievable in each and every scene. Doctor Strange is a Guardians Of The Galaxy-like celestial looker that allows Marvel’s freak flag to fly even higher, escaping squeaky-clean comic book brightness for something a little more expansive, and a whole lot more stunning. I just wish that Strange’s path to mythic completion could keep up with scenes of vivid, cranium-crashing choreography, as familiar NYC streets fold and get tossed around like paper airplanes. Visuals are on fleek as the kids say, but a clunky script balances epic elements with more trivial affairs.

Marvel has shown on numerous occasions that you can have your chicken shawarma and eat it too, where Doctor Strange focuses more on presentation than all-around enjoyment. No fault is thrown and praise is still warranted, but there’s a piece missing from this nearly-assembled artifact. Fingers crossed that Benedict Cumberbatch finishes his character evolution the next time Stephen Strange propels us through his mind’s eye, because he’s primed to be a huge Marvel asset – we just haven’t seen his best yet, as it’s hopefully still to come.

Doctor Strange Review

Doctor Strange is all about the razzle-dazzle, where spectacle elements are good enough to save a more clunky, weightless Marvel origin story.