Strange is a rather accurate word to describe the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
If you think about it, it’s probably the most unique and successful marketing idea of the 21st century.
The MCU is officially the highest grossing franchise of all time, almost doubling the domestic gross of the number two spot, Harry Potter, despite the fact that it’s the youngest series in the entire top ten.
How did that happen?
It’s a franchise comprised of a bunch of series; it’s essentially a hive of brand recognition.
It has the overall brand of Marvel, but then it has each individual strain of films, plus the strain of the crossover films. Calling it genius, from a marketing standpoint, would be underselling it.
However, at this point I don’t think it’s controversial to say Marvel has been in something of a creative limbo.
Despite allowing a dip into somewhat idiosyncratic filmmaking with Guardians of the Galaxy, almost every Marvel film has started to feel like they’re all copying from the same homework.
It’s not even that they’re bad films, just exponentially unfulfilling ones.
With two years having passed since Guardians, the stalemate Marvel has been in creatively has become increasingly noticeable, with the aforementioned space opera standing out rather massively as being its own, standalone work rather than a cog in a growingly unsatisfactory machine.
And then came Doctor Strange.
I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t particularly excited for Strange, as it looked incredibly generic and I figured there was no way it could live up to its titular character’s name.
That much is still largely true, in that Doctor Strange is not notably strange on a filmmaking level. But it is exciting, which is something Marvel films haven’t been in years.
The film focuses on Dr. Stephen Strange (portrayed by probably-the-most-British-person-currently-in-Hollywood-Benedict-Cumberbatch), a renowned and arrogant neurosurgeon.
After a car accident, he is robbed of the ability to use his hands, thus plummeting him into a mental breakdown after losing the one thing that gave his life meaning.
Desperate for a cure, he stumbles upon The Ancient One, who teaches him the ways of the mystic arts and trains him to fight this week’s Cosmic Threat of Annihilationµ™.
The set-up is very standard, there’s no getting around that.
This isn’t breaking away from Marvel’s origin story playbook to any large extent, but what it does do is make that playbook entertaining again. There’s no denying what the marketing has been pushing from the start: the stunning visuals.
The kaleidoscope cities looked like Inception-table scraps in the trailer, but in the final film, it has a trippy finesse which gives the characters weight in the action scenes, rather than feeling like CGI puppets being thrown around a sandbox.
I also mustn’t forget to mention the 2001: A Space Odyssey inspired sequence where The Ancient One shows Strange the multiverse, which is the most visually creative thing we’ve seen not just in a Marvel movie, but in any blockbuster in recent memory.
What makes Strange actually work versus other films in the MCU is the focus on characters who have real, genuine flaws.
Not flaws like Tony Stark flaws, where they’re apparently given depth because they’re kind of an asshole to someone but always does the right thing in the end, I mean characters who wind up doing unequivocally the wrong thing.
Without spoilers, there’s a character in the film that does what they think is the right thing to do, and it ends up exploding in their face and they’re forced to deal with the very real consequences of their actions.
That’s real character drama and depth, unlike in something like Civil War, where Tony Stark does the wrong thing mostly because he just didn’t have the information to do the right thing.
One thing that also jumped out at me was the score.
Now, it’s obviously not as memorable as some of the scores this year (Warcraft, Batman V Superman, The Neon Demon), or really memorable at all from a melody standpoint, but it does have a surprising amount of personality.
Michael Giacchino’s use of off-kilter instruments, like the recurring use of a harpsichord, lends a real sense of, well, wizardry to the film.
It has a swashbuckling, pulpy tone that actually adds to what’s happening on screen rather than just replicates it. It’s the first time since The Avengers that an MCU score is something that I’d willingly listen to outside of watching the film itself (and no, the Guardians soundtrack does not count).
Doctor Strange isn’t a particularly big surprise for 2016, a year full of blockbuster surprises, but it is certainly a surprise for it’s franchise, and for director Scott Derrickson, whose filmography thus far has been almost entirely populated with good but fairly standard horror fare.
It doesn’t often happen, but an MCU film has actually become a seasoned director’s best film.
Praise must also be given to cinematographer Ben Davis, who has worked on several Marvel films before this, but manages to pull together some of the most memorable shots the MCU has ever had.
The shot of Strange walking towards the window as seen in the trailer won’t be forgotten in context any time soon.
One of the most interesting departures from the standard Marvel formula the film has is in the third act.
While nearly all of the films post-Avengers (and popcorn flicks in general) focus on some kind of destruction porn where a city gets wholesale destroyed while our heroes fly around and people die left and right, the climax for Doctor Strange has a moral and a point to what happens.
Because in the end, Doctor Strange is a film about pacifism.
It shows that outsmarting your enemy is preferable and morally sounder than simply using brute force.
And you know what? For me, that gets many brownie points, because intelligence and strategy being rewarded in an MCU film is something that doesn’t happen often, and it’s simply glorious to see.
Even the mandatory Marvel post-credits scene, which mostly end up being fan bait, sets up a villain for future films that already has a more interesting backstory and a more coherent motivation than the majority of villains in the MCU with entire films dedicated to them.
Is it perfect? No, not by a long shot.
Cumberbatch himself is merely fine in the role, performing the necessary emotions perfectly well but never making a particularly iconic statement as the hero like Robert Downey Jr. did when he first played Iron Man, or as Ben Affleck did earlier this year with his turn as Batman.
The biggest issue with the film is the comedy, which apparently came out of reshoots months after the film had wrapped, and it feels like it.
It’s often bizarrely out of place, and other than a few moments, most of it isn’t funny.
Cringe-inducing references to Beyoncé and Adele not only seem tonally jarring, but out of place for the character’s saying them.
The occasional insert of physical slapstick actually works surprisingly well, but it’s often sacrificed for pop-culture references or shoe-horned in ‘modern’ jokes (the wifi password joke from the trailer doesn’t get any funnier in the finished product, trust me).
Despite these admitted nit-picks, there’s very little to complain about with Doctor Strange.
It’s fun, paced well, visually stunning, has characters with compelling depth, and even handles disability in a way most blockbusters never even attempt.
It’s certainly a breath of fresh air for the MCU, and while I wouldn’t put my money on this starting a hot streak just yet, it’s certainly made me more hopeful that the creative rut the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been stuck in for two years may be coming to a close.
★★★★ Fun, visually breathtaking, and surprisingly thoughtful, Doctor Strange doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but is compelling and well-made enough to be absolutely worth a watch.
In US Theaters November 4
all images via Marvel