“Doctor Strange” rings oddly familiar

This fall, Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” was easily one of the most buzzed about films of the season. Not only was it produced by Marvel Studios – which creates instant hype for any film – it also raised intrigue in audiences with a dazzling trailer featuring surreal visuals in the ilk of “Inception.”

Another allure of the film, and to me the most important, was its potential to be something outside of the typical Marvel fare. The trailer indicated that “Doctor Strange” could finally break free from the formulaic approach that the studio has adopted over the years.

Marvel Studios is in a position where anything that they make is a guaranteed financial success, and the fact that they haven’t used that advantage to introduce more interesting films into the mainstream has always confounded me.

However, unfortunately, it seems that was not to change with “Doctor Strange.” I will admit that sitting in that theater did alter my sense of time, but certainly in the way the film intended: rather than challenge my temporal perception with interesting filmmaking, I felt time move at a painfully slow rate as I watched a movie I’ve essentially seen a million times.

Though a fun, albeit flitting film featuring enjoyable performances from Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch, “Doctor Strange” is not any more substantive than your average Marvel movie. The plot is still just a collection of scenes that alternate between expository dialogue and elaborate fight sequences (although now with kaleidoscopic visual effects!).

The screenwriting leaves a lot to be desired as well. None of the characters are ever really developed beyond the surface level. Even more disappointingly, the script fell prey to the exact kind of lazy melding of multi-dimensional and physics and Eastern philosophy that the film tries to make fun of in an early scene.

I think that one of the big problems at play in this movie was its complete lack of thoughtful exploration. “Doctor Strange” taps into a variety of different philosophical and scientifoc concepts, but avoids fleshing out the implications of any of them.

This is particular notable in what is supposed to be a climactic plot twist in the film, when one of the protagonist’s allies is revealed to have been using magic to make themselves immortal – the exact thing the bad guys are trying to do. To be clear this is not presented really as a betrayal; they are still helping to fight the bad guys. And I guess the other good guys are somewhat upset, but it plays bizarrely inconsistent, as if the actors themselves weren’t really sure what to make of it. And why should they? By all accounts, it seems like the script gave them little to work from.

The film did, however, have one impressive and interesting scene, during the “bargain” between the protagonist and a large cloud-like demon toward the end of the film. Though it was well-played and the clear highlight of the film, it came a little late to make up for the disappointments of the other 90 percent of the movie. Rather, it served as a sort of cruel ghost of what the entire film could have been.

Don’t get me wrong, “Doctor Strange” was still an enjoyable romp. If you are seeking another fun super hero movie to watch, go ahead and see it. But if anyone was hoping to experience something new or unfamiliar to the genre, they would do best to either seek elsewhere or brace for disappointment.

mayo1@stolaf.edu

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