Rating: 4 of 5
tldr: It’s Inception meets The Matrix in super hero form. Which, how has no one done Inception meets The Matrix before? They fit too perfectly together.
While I knew a bit about Dr. Strange going in, like the character’s name and his look and that he messed with reality, I didn’t really know his history or the mythology around him. So, it was quite refreshing to not know what was coming for this character as the story progressed.
And it progressed a bit slowly. A bit of too close detail on medical tools in the beginning. A bit of meandering as a broken man (as one would do) before truly stepping into his journey. Then, of course, a sequence of training because one does not immediately become… well anything really.
All that being said, I think the pacing of the film didn’t suffer for the lack of things happening. There was a hint of humor that sustained it; a lot of asking questions and hints of development that felt like small steps but steps enough to keep going.
It’s a quieter movie than some of the other Marvel films I think because of that pace. The attention to detail continues beyond the opening operating scenes. The film spends time in the progress and transition of things. You see Dr. Strange walk through a courtyard to get to the library and nothing happens on the walk – instead of starting the scene in the library. The pauses, the inner struggles, the moments almost as if it’s a tv show give it a very different tone than the other Marvel films. It worked for me, though I don’t know if it’d work for everyone.
And Dr. Strange’s introduction to the multiverse is a feast of visual effects but it kind of went on too long because it was the one noticeable sequence where absolutely nothing was happening with the character. Or any of the characters.
I loved Benedict Cumberbatch in the role. Could not imagine anyone else in it. And I thought that years ago when they were discussing the casting. There’s no one else who could play this arrogant, narcissistic character with genuine gravitas and not have him be completely unlikable. Cumberbatch pulls of arrogant in character after character but he harnesses it somehow and you love him all the more for it rather than less.
And Rachel McAdams gave such a beautiful performance, so nuanced and strong and genuine. Marvel has a bit of trouble with chemistry when it comes to their male leads and corresponding heroines, but McAdams and Cumberbatch are well suited with one another, if not especially fiery. And well suited is a lot better than several of the other pairings (and by several I pretty much mean all – except Peggy Carter and Steve Rogers).
I dislike Tilda Swinton, though. I went in thinking that Cate Blanchett would have been a better choice, but I think now that she would have been a bit too refined. I’m sure I could think of other, better, options given time.
And I gave surprisingly high director marks for an action movie (two points to Slytherin – you totally know Scott Derrickson is in Slytherin). He orchestrated the onscreen logistics impressively. A couple of the fights were a little too quick to track but nothing as bad as Age of Ultron. There were also subtle ties woven throughout the film that are uncommon on a big action film like this. And between the performances and the logistics he did kind of a stellar job. He also was one of the writers so he gets marks for that.
The visual effects were also impressive. Overall, I didn’t LOVE it the way I LOVED some of the other Marvel movies. But it’s easily in my top five of Marvel movies.
On casting controversies
I kind of don’t want to talk about the casting and I kind of do. Usually I can’t stand Tilda Swinton. There’s this coarseness to her that I just find very off-putting. But the controversy isn’t my opinion of her, it’s that a white person replaced an Asian character. And I get that in many ways that’s reverse diversity. Except that clearly the filmmakers were actually going for diversity in their choices. They wanted to sub-vert the stereotype of the ancient, wise Asian man.
And they didn’t want to make it an ancient, wise Asian woman because they wanted to avoid the Dragon Lady stereotype.
Director Scott Derrickson wanted the character to be middle aged. I would have gone with middle aged black woman or young Asian woman – because a man in the role is just no fun and a terrible imbalance of male roles.
But Derrickson wanted the character to be Celtic. Which means white people.
I do have to admit – a middle aged white woman is about the polar opposite of an old Asian man. And this may be the first role ever that Swinton didn’t aggravate me.
And every aspect of this movie was so intentional, so obviously considered and the nuances pulled together that you know Derrickson chose a Celtic culture for more than the color of their skin. Maybe casting a white person is the opposite of diversity casting. But I wish we lived in a world, in a film and tv landscape, so diverse, so full of work for all people, that this sort of play on opposites wasn’t a controversial creative choice.
And the reason I kind of don’t want to talk about it (even though I did) is because having seen the movie, there so much else to talk about.
Like all the metaphysical ideas bandied about in the pauses between the fights.
Or how it has great action.
And stunning visual effects.
Like how they had to try soooo hard not to recreate the kung fu scene with Morpheus and Neo when Strange is meeting The Ancient One.
And that the humor is more dead-pan rather than witty one-liners.
And there are dimensional characters all around (but not enough girls).
Or how the city bending scenes look just like Inception, except when the buildings turn into death-trap machines.
It’s a layered film (though not deep) with a lot of things going on and a lot of things to talk about (which I very much like) while it’s still as bright and shiny and accessible as any super hero film.
If Guardians of the Galaxy is a tonal shift, say to the left, in the Marvel universe then Dr. Strange is a tonal shift to the right. It’s interesting to see one cinematic universe have a cohesion and still strike different chords. And it’ll be more interesting to see how Dr. Strange is involved in future films.