When “Iron Man” was released in theaters, it was a breath of fresh air to the superhero franchise. It didn’t rely on bad slapstick humor or over-the-top violence to sell tickets. Instead, it used a charismatic leading man to make jokes, show a true internal struggle, and create a hero that people actually could root for and enjoy watching. We tend to forget today since the character has been with us so long, but Iron Man was not one of the better known Marvel superheroes. The success of his movie launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a money juggernaut that rolls on to this day.
As time went on and the movies continued to come out, the formula became a little stale. Marvel mixed things up by creating teams (“The Avengers”) then ripping them apart (“Civil War”) and introducing more and more characters from the comic book universe. Regardless, the movies seemed kind of the same – they made us laugh at times and had some moments that tried to land an emotional punch, but it all felt so… done. No matter how good (or bad) the movie was, the formula was predictable. A cartoonish bad guy would be vanquished, the good guys would escape alive, and right would beat wrong. The movies were are best pretty good and at worst bad, but not original.
Enter “Doctor Strange”, a character whose name reveals the best adjective for his character arc. Marvel decided it was to to unleash this essential Avenger/Illuminati member on audiences to set up its later story lines. The movie is not an incredibly radical departure from other Marvel movies, but it is just different enough to be interesting and stay with you.
What’s similar about “Doctor Strange” to other MCU movies? The plot is fairly predictable and good versus evil lines are well defined. A vortex comes into play – like many Marvel movies seem to have – and the ending requires a comic book stretch of the imagination for how it resolves a complicated plot line. The first post-credits scene is also funny, but I cannot comment on the second one as I have given up waiting 10-15 minutes for a thirty-second clip that may or may not be funny.
What’s different? When Marvel launched “Iron Man”, Robert Downey Jr. was a known commodity and a well regarded actor, but his star had faded due to his personal struggles. In a sense, this defined the MCU – Marvel taking some B or lower stars and making them into A-level (Chris Evans is a prime example). Doctor Strange is played by one of the biggest stars in the world, albeit with an unfortunate but passable American accent. Benedict Cumberbatch, as he is in pretty much everything, is excellent and alone worth the price of admission. But then there is a second difference. Female non-leads in Marvel movies can be hit or miss, but more often than not are name actresses that bring little to the plot. Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One is the most nuanced, intriguing character which says a lot considering how interesting Cumberbatch makes Strange. She is not just some perfect model and guide for Strange’s journey, but rather a real character that has doubts and moral decisions. The other main actress is the always impressive Rachel McAdams, who with a lesser script can carry a character with her poise but, as Christine Palmer, shows some range as the romantic interest/assistant. Of course, Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent although his character in the script falls into common tropes.
What most reviews focus on is the special effects, and they are correct that the effects are cool. The best thing about them is they supplement the plot, and are rarely superfluous flourishes to flatter the production team. That said, the effects while effective are not groundbreaking and are certainly CGI. They’re cool but not revolutionary.
Going back to the first point, what makes this movie different? It tweaks the MCU formula in good ways, and introduces an interesting character, but at its core it still retains the same Marvel formula. The movie is certainly worth seeing, and although I did not see it in IMAX 3D, I suspect in many cases that will be your most convenient option. Go and enjoy a superhero movie that’s certainly a Marvel movie, but with a few upgrades that make it stand out.