As the fan-based war between Marvel and DC finally took to the big screen in 2016, with DC getting into their own film universe after softly launching with Man of Steel back in 2013, a common complaint from some corners of the Internet was that critics were all too willing to praise Marvel and condemn DC. Now, as someone who grew up with DC characters, I’ll admit that I’ve found the bulk of Marvel Studios’ output to be better than what I’ve seen from DC Films to date. That being said, while Marvel Studios has done a better job with their films than other studios have with characters they’ve licensed from Marvel, there is a bit of a trend that’s becoming more and more apparent with each new origin story. With their latest film, Doctor Strange, Marvel dips into some new terrain that, visually, is among the most accomplished work the studio’s released. On a narrative level, though, there’s a familiarity that’s becoming increasingly hard to deny, to Marvel’s disadvantage.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon whose life comes crashing down when a car accident takes away his use of his hands. After exhausting his options through western medicine, he makes his way to Nepal to meet The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), the Sorcerer Supreme, who introduces him to the mystic arts. Strange begins to learn about alternate dimensions, traveling through portals, astral projection, and summoning weapons. When Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of The Ancient One, tries to open a portal to the dark dimension with the goal of summoning the evil Dormammu, Strange’s training is put on hold to bring Kaecilius to a stop.
Doctor Strange may have assembled the most talented cast for an origin story in the MCU canon to date, which makes the fact that most of the characters get one-dimensional stories more frustrating than before. Even with Mikkelsen in the role, Kaecilius joins the ranks of pretty much every Marvel villain outside of Loki as just being there to propel the plot. To the film’s credit, at least, there’s a bit of a parallel relationship between Kaecilius’ goal to conquer time and Strange’s goal to regain control of his hands. It almost works in the context of the film, but there’s not enough material given to Kaecilius to properly motivate him.
It could be worse, though. Rachel McAdams is given the thankless role of Strange’s co-worker Christine Palmer, but she’s there to pop in and out of Strange’s non-mystical world. There’s little to explain why exactly she’s willing to help Strange out, beyond knowing that he’s brilliant and that they once dated. If Palmer was replaced by a generic doctor during her scenes, it wouldn’t make a significant difference to the narrative.
Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor at least get more to do, though the strengths of these characters comes more from the actors and increased screen time than the script. Swinton has another stock role for a Marvel movie – the mentor – but she plays it with a lot of fun. The Ancient One is a tricky role, because she’s responsible for so much in this universe, but she’s trying to teach Strange to stop being a control freak. If anyone could pull this kind of character off, though, it’s Swinton. And yes, let’s acknowledge the fact that making The Ancient One a woman in this incarnation of Doctor Strange’s story is brilliant, while whitewashing the character was problematic. Marvel faced a similar issue with Iron Man 3, in that a crucial character in the hero’s stories over the years is someone that’s a gross stereotype of Asian culture. There are better ways around this than casting white actors and shifting the stories surrounding the characters, even if the result is Tilda Swinton in a Marvel movie.
Ejiofor gets a tougher character, though. In the long haul, he could be interesting, but the film doesn’t do enough to properly establish the relationship between Strange and Ejiofor’s Mordo. There’s a darkness inside Mordo that’s clear from Ejiofor’s performance, but it’s not supported by the script, and whatever conflicts may arise from the differences between Strange and Mordo will have to work to make them feel organic.
And what about Doctor Strange himself? Well, if you’ve seen Iron Man, Thor or Guardians of the Galaxy, you have an idea of Doctor Strange’s arc. He’s funny in a quippy way, arrogant to a fault, and an undeniable asshole (though Strange may even one-up Stark in the latter category). External events cause him to reform to a degree, though more than with other characters, Strange also has to come to terms with what he feels is holding him back, namely the loss of precise motor function in his hands.
So if everything feels familiar narratively, what makes Doctor Strange stand out from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? The visuals. Doctor Strange plays out visually like Inception on drugs. It’s a marvel (ha!) watching the alternate dimensions unfold in this film, and suggests a sense of visual adventure that other MCU films have lacked to date.
But impressive visuals aren’t enough to save the film from feeling familiar. Doctor Strange was and is being heavily promoted as adding a new dimension to the broader MCU, but the final product offers the same kind of story, with some minor alterations. Is there room for Marvel to do more with their stories than what we’ve seen before? Certainly. Captain America: Civil War showed one way these films can go. But even then, it seems like there’s only so much wiggle room these stories have to get outside of the formula that’s worked for Marvel to date. The end result is, in this case, certainly fine, but it’s disappointing that the film’s narrative doesn’t become as adventurous as its visuals.