My feelings on Doctor Strange leading up to the release are similar what I thought of Ant-Man: it is a risk with an unknown character and a unique set-up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). All I know about Strange is he is a powerful sorcerer and was the inspiration for Doctor Orpheus from Venture Brothers. Other than a couple appearances in comics I frequent, I barely keep up with the character, and know nothing about his standing in the Marvel pantheon.
What I do know is Strange will be the first in the MCU to introduce magic. Up until now the movies were grounded in science fiction with the Thor films science fantasy. With Doctor Strange, he can summon eldritch horrors, teleport at will, and cast divination spells to predict the future. With that kind of power, who knows how he will change the MCU. Was Strange another exceptional installment or has Marvel released its first bad movie?
After sustaining nerve damage to his hands in a car accident, the renowned and arrogant Doctor Stephen Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, goes searching for a solution. While following a lead in Nepal, he joins the Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton, who trains him in the mystic arts.
Because Strange presents a whole other dimension (no pun intended) to the MCU, the story consists of an origin and set-up. We get both where the titular doctor came from and a view of the world in which he inhabits. The concept of the Multiverse is also introduced, which will likely tie into the broader MCU. In that way the film succeeds, but Strange stumbles very hard.
A good chunk of the middle is where most of the set-up takes place and the delivery is bad. The exposition is not only slow, but also distinctly unnatural. At one point the thematic momentum is steady as Strange is being trained before it stops and we get an extended scene of Benedict Wong talking about books. Then there is a small tangent where Chiwetel Ejiofor explains how enchanted weapons work. About half of the information given is actually useful, but the delivery is so stilted it kills the flow.
I understand why this is an issue. Strange presents a new world of possibilities that adds onto the MCU where the science fiction/fantasy elements were simple to understand. This movie has the unfortunate job of explaining its ideas without the crutch of a built-in logic to ease the transition. I had the same trouble writing my FF treatment (please read it). The writers were probably so afraid of the risk that they took the easy route of throwing out a lot of information when we only needed a little. That is why the delivery feels unnatural. Had they approached the material like any other MCU film after a couple intense rewrites, this would not be a problem.
The rest of Strange is quite fun and well put together. The character himself had great development and Cumberbatch absolutely nailed him. The build up from Strange as an arrogant prick to student of mysticism is some of the best acting since Robert Downey Jr. donned the mantel of Iron Man. Cumberbatch brings whit and turmoil to the character that feels genuine. He also has the added benefit of being a fresh face much like Paul Rudd did in Ant-Man.
The highlight is the element of magic. The idea of reality manipulation, creating something from nothing, and enchanted weapons make for a lot interesting visuals and cool sequences. People run along walls and use powers that shoot out sparks while the environment shifts like a kaleidoscope. The action is also beautiful and creative, but there is not enough of it. Apart from buildings folding in on themselves and some hallucinations, there is not really enough craziness that you would expect with extra-dimensional based powers. There is a whole wealth of material out there and hardly any of it was used.
In the grand scheme that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange is a big risk that changes our understanding of the movies’ internal logic. While there are deeply flawed missteps, the film succeeds in conveying such vital information while being enjoyable to watch. It is similar to Ant-Man as a fun diversion from the main body of films. I recommend it, but be ready for a great lull around the middle.