Review of Dr. Strange: a good film misunderstood by the critics

Summary:  This review will help both those wondering if they should see the Dr. Strange and those who have seen it, although in different ways. This gives a different perspective than you’ll get from the critics. No spoilers!

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

— From Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949).

Dr. Strange


Review of Marvel’s “Dr. Strange”.

Great acting.
Some interesting cgi.
Adequate plot and dialog.
Questionable morality.

**** out of 5 stars.

Marvel’s latest film tells a story familiar to us all as another re-telling of the hero’s journey, as described by Joseph Campbell in his famous book. It’s also familiar to those of us who read the Dr. Strange comic books, which have run on and off since 1963. The film shows the power and weaknesses both of this iconic character and Marvel’s superhero films. The reviews show that many critics have difficulty understanding either.

The trailer introduces one of the great taglines for the series, almost as good positioning as that of the first X-men film (protecting those who fear and hate them):  “The Avengers protect the world from physical dangers. We safeguard it against more mystical threats.”

Let’s start the review with the most important aspect of modern Hollywood film-making, on which they lavish their time and talent: the CGI. Some of it is excellent. Much is a bore, repeating themes we have all seen countless times going back to 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (Strange’s first magical trip copies 2001’s hyperspace journey). The key demonstrations of magic in the film are all in the trailers: sparkly space portals (clever), astral projection (well done), and space bending. The last is drawn more skillfully in Dr. Strange than in Inception, but used less skillfully. They use too much of it for too long, so it becomes boring.

The fight scenes display little imagination, mostly hand to hand combat with magic light sabers. Oddly they employ none of the imaginative tools used by Dr. Strange in the comics’ battles (e.g., Crimson Bands of Cyttorak, Images of Ikonn, Shields of the Seraphim, Winds of Watoomb, Flames of the Faltine, Hand of Hoggoth). The last third of the film is an extended fight scene, running so long I felt lost in time (but not as bad as The Lord of the Rings, where Peter Jackson gutted the plot to fit in orgies of gratuitous violence).

At the end I agree with the harsh verdict of James Verniere at the Boston Herald: the good spots were too few, so it was a “derivative, monotonous and repetitious display of CGI Cheez Whiz.

The film seldom shows the small uses of magic to demonstrate its power as often done in the comics (except for a humorous example in the first of the two codas in the credits). The writers seem to have exhausted their imagination on the large CGI set pieces, treating the rest as a paint-by-the-numbers exercise.

Dr. Strange in despair

Characters and acting

The actors are superlative. The large cast means small roles for all but the lead actor, hence critics whining that their favorites don’t get more dialogue. As Dr. Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch  carries most of the dramatic load. He does it well, growing from self-absorbed jerk to wise protector of the world (unlike Tony Stark, who remains irresponsible and obnoxious throughout the Marvel films).

Christine Palmer in the Marvel comics
Christine Palmer in the Marvel comics.

In recent years critics have began auditing for jobs as political commissars by kvetching about films’ ethnic and gender dynamics. To them Dr, Strange is guilty of “whitewashing” by casting a white British woman (Tida Swinton), as the Tibetan “Ancient One”. But to do otherwise would have made them guilty of Orientalist stereotyping. It’s fun being a Leftist critic, enjoying the noxious thrill of righteous indignation.

Swintron does a great job as the Ancient One. She shows a great range of mind and heart, acting with restraint yet expressive of hidden depths. However, she did not project the kind of power I associate with Earth’s “Sorcerer Supreme”. Much of that results from the staging of her character in the battle scenes, in which she looks weak.

Interesting villains are the core of a superhero film. Here Dr. Strange falls short. Kaecilius, wonderfully played by Mads Mikkelsen (e.g., NBC’s Hannibal), is little more than a sketch. The film lacks a strong opposition for Strange, another factor in the film’s flat feel.

The plot, especially its moral dimension

Not everything makes sense. Not everything has to.
— True words by the Ancient One. Its wisdom was lost on the critics.

Few could adequately write the Dr. Strange comics, so it has gone in and out of print. The lack of rules and the open-endedness of Dr. Strange’s world required a level of imagination that few in Marvel’s bullpen could provide.

The film adequately grappled with this. The plot moves along briskly. In the modern fashion, it provides an amusement-park like ride. Some of scenes are B-movie sloppy writing, such as the emergency room scene (new uses of electro-shock devices, ten minutes of first aid to fully cure a serious chest wound).

Fun and forgettable, a formula that makes films popular in other cultures. Once China learns to make good films, they probably will use the massive East Asian market to destroy Hollywood — who by then will have forgotten how to make anything but shallow action-adventure films. Our grandchildren won’t believe that America used to manufacture consumer appliances and films.

One element of the plot deserves special attention. The Dr. Strange comics have usually had a strong moral basis, rooted in the conflict of order vs. chaos. My strongest objection to the film concerns how the Hollywood writers handled this. It shows their world view, which is both amoral and contrary to the West’s core values. I can say no more without giving spoilers.  Post your comments here after you’ve seen the firm.

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The trailer for Dr. Strange

4 thoughts on “Review of Dr. Strange: a good film misunderstood by the critics”

  1. I saw the movie yesterday and greatly enjoyed it, although I think a lot of the critical points you raise are perfectly fair.

    Since it’s now obligatory to sit through *all* the credits to see the double stinger, everyone got observe the truly massive production crew. I’d guess more than 2,000 people were employed to do the CGI effects. Seems like a shoe-in for the Oscar for best visual effects.

    Although I just looked it up, and was surprised to see that the movie’s estimated budget ($165M) is not even *close* to record-setting. (One of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies cost over $320M!)

    1. sflicht,

      I wish they had shifted 1% of that effort to the writers. I get the impression they lavished attention on the big set pieces, and dashed off the rest. Note the big CGI scenes are usually (always?) written first, because it takes so long to produce them.

  2. So, what are your professional qualifications as a film critic, if any? Or do you believe that they don’t require any special expertise or training. Getting one’s film reviews from financial analysts is about as daft as getting one’s financial advice from film critics, IMHO.

    1. P.

      “So, what are your professional qualifications as a film critic, if any?”

      Again we see why you are accused of being daft! Reviewing popular entertainment is a game everyone can play. Google shows over a hundred thousand reviews of Dr. Strange. Major TV shows get scores of reviews about each week’s episode.

      Buckle down and send your silly carping notes to each and every one of these amateur reviews! The world awaits your guidance!

      “Getting one’s film reviews from financial analysts is about as daft as getting one’s financial advice from film critics”

      That’s quite a mad comparison. Financial analysis of major economic trends is a vital service with high stakes. Reviews of entertainment are part of the fun, with zero consequences.


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