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Doctor Strange (2016)—A Solid, if not a bit Formulaic Origin Story

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been loved by both general movie goers and fans of the Marvel comics. However, while the MCU crafted successful film after film, something was missing. That something was the exploration of the Marvel multiverse. But there was just one problem: there was no character at the time who could make this exploration possible. However, in 2016, all that would change as Marvel finally got that character: Doctor Strange.

Dr. Stephen Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is a highly decorated neurosurgeon who is also a bit of a dick, much in the vein of Tony Stark. After getting into a car accident, his hands are destroyed, making him unable to perform surgery. Strange travels to Kamar-Taj in search of a method to regain use of his hands. He meets the Ancient One (played by Tilda Swinton) who trains him in the mystic arts. Meanwhile, a dark wizard, Kaecilius (played by Mads Mikkelsen) and his followers plan to bring Dormammu from the Dark Dimension to Earth to grant himself eternal life.

While this film is a solid introduction to the character of Doctor Strange, structurally speaking, it feels very similar to other origin stories within the MCU. The biggest similarity the film shares with another MCU film has to be Iron Man. Both Stephen Strange and Tony Stark are famous, playboy rich guys who have a very snarky sense of humor. After going through a physical tragedy, they undergo a spiritual transformation to become a superhero to make up for their past failures. The only difference being Tony Stark becoming a superhero through technology and Dr. Strange doing so through magic.

Despite the rather formulaic structure of the film, Doctor Strange features some impressive visuals. Until this time, nothing has been nearly on par with Doctor Strange’s use of acid-inducing contortion of buildings, walls and hallways to throw opponents off balance, literally using your surroundings to your advantage. Additionally, the magic weapon projections, mostly whips brought to life by both orange, crackling electricity along with invisible staves and swords. Several shots of the film along with the cinematography reminded of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, especially the fight between Strange and Mordo (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) against Kaecilius and his zealots in New York.

Christopher Nolan called. He wants Inception back

A major issue I had with the MCU at the time was their poor use of their villains, and unfortunately Doctor Strange doesn’t change that. Mads Mikkelsen is an incredible actor and has been in some of my favorite films and TV shows, such as Casino Royale (2006) and Hannibal. However in Doctor Strange, Mads is wasted as a villain. Kaecilius is said to have lost his wife and son in an accident, thus leading him to train under the Ancient One in the mystic arts. However, he became disillusioned with her and then turned to the dark side. Why did he want to bring Dormammu to Earth? Just to achieve immortality?

One of the biggest issues that the film came under fire for was the case of whitewashing, mostly with the character of the Ancient One. In the comics, the Ancient One was an old, Tibetan man, whereas the movie portrays the Ancient One as a Scottish white woman. While the issue of whitewashing is very real in Hollywood, I think the change was for the better. The Ancient One from the comics appears as a very stereotypical wise old Asian martial arts master which was popularized by films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2 and 1984’s The Karate Kid. By making the character a white woman helps subvert that trope.

Madam Gao got nothing on that!

However, I noticed that the film does share a big problem that many MCU films, that being making a person of color be a sidekick to the white protagonist. In Doctor Strange, both Wong and Mordo act as his sidekicks in a way, despite both having more experience in the Mystic Arts than Strange. Why are they the sidekicks? It comes off as a bit racist on Hollywood’s end and robs the opportunity for actors of color to play fully fleshed out characters. Additionally, fans who are people of color struggle to find appropriate heroic representation in MCU films. The reason why Black Panther was so critically acclaimed and beloved by fans was because it was the first film with a superhero who’s a person of color and who’s proud of his heritage. While Marvel is starting to include more diversity, it still has a long way to go.

Overall, Doctor Strange is a solid, yet formulaic origin story. The actors all give solid, although non-groundbreaking performances. Where this film truly shines is with its visual effects, especially with the CGI work when it comes to the fight scenes and the portrayal of the Mystic Arts. Despite that, it isn’t enough to save the film from feeling rather mediocre in general. While Dr. Strange has been further fleshed out in subsequent films, it’s a shame that his first film was rather lackluster. Let’s hope that the sequel does him more justice.

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