in Retrospecticus, Review

Doctor Strange (2016)

Original Review: Strange Magic (three and a half stars)

Michael Giacchino is an award-winning composer whose work you’d probably recognize. He scored a bunch of Pixar movies like The Incredibles and Up, the latter of which won him an Academy Award. He’s also worked on a lot of J.J. Abrams projects, from his shows, like Alias and Lost, to Mission: Impossible III and Super 8. Dude’s good, is what I’m saying. In 2016, Giacchino was brought in to create a new fanfare for the Marvel Studios logo and to score his first MCU movie, Doctor Strange. He rose to the challenge, creating a sweeping theme for the sorcerer supreme. The only problem? It’s strongly evocative of his Star Trek theme from seven years earlier. Like the movie itself, that theme is great on its own but underwhelming in its greater context.

There’s some pretty intense whiplash going through these last four MCU movies quickly in order. There’s the gargantuan, amusing epic of Age of Ultron followed by the tiny heist pseudo-origin story of Ant-Man. That leads into Civil War, which was a bigger, grittier movie than anything that came before it in the series. And then we’re back with another origin story, one that’s even set a few years in the past so it couldn’t be more disconnected from what’s going on. Woo, what a trip. It’s a bit disorienting to suddenly be going all the way back to, basically, the plot outline of the first Iron Man after watching 12 attempts to elevate and innovate on that formula. Like going back to the state fair right after a trip to Disney Land.

Let’s also not forget that a lot of super hero movies blundered there way into theaters in 2016. Outside of the MCU, Warner Bros’ DCEU experiment started to crumble with both Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad releasing to blockbuster numbers but critical scorn. Fox put out Deadpool and then squandered that good will with X-Men: Apocalypse. There was even a Ninja Turtles reboot sequel. Doctor Strange came out after all of those movies, just a few days before the 2016 general election. And we all know how that turned out.

I remember it was pretty tricky trying to convince my fellow shell-shocked snowflakes that it was worth their time to care about yet another super hero movie at that time. I didn’t even have the connective tissue of the MCU to cash in on. Hell, I didn’t even get around to writing a review until December. As great as Doctor Strange‘s cast was, and despite the fantastical trailers, everyone was just numb by the time the movie came out. Throw in some accusations of whitewashing and re-appropriating Asian mysticism stereotypes and it really does seem like this movie was doomed to be at best an also-ran.

But it’s fine. Doctor Strange‘s greatest strength is its visuals, which go a long way to make each action set piece feel unique both within the film and the greater universe. That’s something I like action movies to do: vary the type of action for each big scene. The Mission: Impossible movies are really good at this, they build each sequence around a new, terrifying stunt going wrong so you’re always excited. Thor is bad at this, every action scene is just Thor hitting bad guys with his hammer (but that’s OK for that movie, it’s not really about the action). Doctor Strange constantly reinvents itself, giving us sequences like a chase across moving skyscrapers, a martial arts duel in a museum of magical artifacts, and a battle in a city block that’s putting itself back together. It keeps me interested.

Sadly, a lot of the coolest, trippiest stuff feels like an imitation of Inception, except it’s all CGI without Christopher Nolan’s obsession with doing as much practically as possible. Again, it would be better if only you could watch this movie in a vacuum. At least there’s the insane part when the Ancient One opens Strange’s third eye and he flies into space and grows hands out of hands out of his fingers. It’s a shame that after that scene, Strange mostly seems interested in using magic to make weapons, because more of that would have been really cool. Given the stuff we saw him do in Infinity War, I’m going to assume that’s the direction they’ll go in the sequel.

Speaking of sequels, with Endgame fast approaching, I’ve started hearing people talk about the first generation of MCU actors passing the torch to new equivalents. Captain Marvel is the new Thor, Black Panther is the new Captain America, and Doctor Strange is the new Iron Man. Regardless of what happens, the connection between Strange and Stark was so obvious I even wrote about it back in my original review. They’re both rich, witty, arrogant geniuses who suffer a life-altering injury and totally change their philosophy to become heroes played by actors who also famously portrayed Sherlock Holmes. Cumberbatch does not have Downey’s charisma, so once again, the comparison is not helpful for this movie. But they played well off each other in Infinity War, so who knows?

The future always seems so bright for Marvel Studios. Doctor Strange was the last MCU movie overseen by the dreaded Marvel Creative Committee, with Kevin Feige, the MCU’s mastermind, finally receiving, apparently, total control. The movie was directed by Scott Derrickson, one of those low-budget horror guys who got his big break. It was the Marvel debut of a bunch of beloved actors, like Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, and Michael Stuhlbarg. For all of them, it should have been one of the biggest, most exciting moments in their entire careers. Unfortunately, partially in spite of the movie itself, Doctor Strange became just another super hero movie. As the man says in Street Fighter, for them it “was the most important day in your life. But for me, it was Tuesday.”

OK, so here’s a thing I think I read years ago and am not going to look up to see if it was ever officially confirmed: Right before his accident, Strange is on a call hearing about potential surgeries to take on. One offered to him is a marine who was injured in some sort of an experimental armor. While the immediate reaction is to assume this was Rhodey’s accident, that doesn’t actually work with the movie being set a few years back. Plus, Rhodey’s Air Force. So what I prefer is that it could be the guy from this footage from Iron Man 2, which would be a fun Easter Egg if true. Hammer does say that guy lived, after all. Other than that, the only canon things that matter are the presence of a new Infinity Stone (cool, they’re back) and the scene from Thor: Ragnarok during the credits. But you already remembered those, I’m sure.

MCU Power Rankings: Man, poor first two Thor movies. I think this is the latest one to just clear that hurdle and go no further.