Saturday, November 12, 2016

Doctor Strange Review (No Spoilers)

I usually watch Marvel/Disney movies but I don't usually cover them on this blog. Recently, however, Jason Book and I talked about upcoming comic book movies from several studios. The first of those movies was Doctor Strange (Marvel Studios). Like several other Marvel movies, I thought it was fairly entertaining but not great in terms of the craft of filmmaking. My rating after one viewing is 6/10 and my (spoiler free) review is below.

Doctor Strange, directed by Scott Derrickson, has several promising features but each of them is held back by some accompanying flaws. Starting with the main character, I thought Stephen Strange had a fairly good arc moving from self-involvement to selflessness and Benedict Cumberbatch turned in a good performance. But that arc was a bit too obvious and cliche for my taste, and the film also suffered because I don't think any of the other characters had enough development or multi-dimensionality. It felt to me like everyone else was there to serve Strange's story -- and yes, this is his solo movie, but it is still possible to give the secondary characters some of their own development and nuance and I felt like Doctor Strange was underwhelming in this department.

Many people are praising the visual effects, and while I agree there are some elements that are visually stunning, I felt like the land/building warps were usually pointless and only served to create an interesting backdrop to the action. There were a couple scenes where the land warps were used by a character to try to trip or stop another character, so that is at least minor purpose, but that still seems like an inefficient way to stop them if you have magic at your disposal, and most of the other times I couldn't discern any real purpose for all the visual craziness that was happening on the screen.

The blockbuster movie formula was in full effect, especially at the beginning. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, necessarily -- the formula is effective for allowing general audiences to immediately plug right in to the film and map it onto familiar mental structures for how to process and enjoy this form of entertainment, but the formula may also be less engaging for moveigoers who seek more challenging fare or who enjoy the challenge of trying to follow something that is a bit more unique in its structure. (I should clarify that I'm referring not to a Marvel movie formula but to a general, Save-the-Cat movie formula, which Marvel uses often but it's not specific to Marvel.) Doctor Strange opens like so many other movies with a dark scene that introduces a villain and a macguffin, and before the scene even ends we know that we will move on next to meet our main character and then in 20-30 minutes the villain/macguffin from the opening scene will cross paths with the main character and set the plot in motion. (The Suicide Squad novelization has precisely this formulaic opening but the final version of the film avoided it by starting with some of the squad members and bringing in the Enchantress and her brother a bit later.) After that formulaic villain opening, we go to the next part of the formula: meet the hero in his current status quo and hit us over the head with his main personality characteristic / character flaw. Then, after about 12 minutes, throw a big wrench into the main character's life, setting up the plot and an eventual resolution to the character flaw. (For more on this formula, including time estimates for when key events will usually happen, see

For me personally, recognizing the formula takes me a bit out of the movie rather than drawing me in along its well-trodden flow. But I recognize that that's a matter of personal taste.

I was not especially impressed with the villain -- to me he basically always seemed to be an actor in makeup, I never got totally absorbed or lost into him as a threat. And I also thought the music missed the mark in several scenes. Sometimes, though, I think this was the director's fault and not the composer's. For example, there's an early scene with Stephen Strange still working as a surgeon when the director seemed to have told his editors and composer to fill the scene with tension around whether the surgery would be successful or not. That tension did not work for me at all because they had already established what a great surgeon he was and this part of the formula is intended to show his status quo, which is as an arrogant but highly skilled surgeon. So of course the surgery was going to be successful. No tension to be had and it just seemed futile to me that they were trying to force the tension into the scene. A better choice, I think, would've been to simply emphasize his surgical brilliance and the reactions from the others around him who are highly impressed, which could then be contrasted with his later struggles and those around him who have much more developed skills with magic. There were other scenes like this one where I felt as though the filmmakers were trying to force a certain feeling onto me that did not actually fit with what I was taking out of the scene. This might be a problem with how I was viewing it, but nevertheless the filmmakers and I were not on the same page in several spots.

The last thing I can say without getting into spoilers is that I thought the humor was really hit-and-miss. There were a few good lines that were funny, and I think Strange's arrogance and sarcasm is a good source of humor that was fairly organic to the characters, but there were also many spots where I thought the forced inclusion of humor worked against the film. I noticed at least 4 different places where the movie was pretty successfully moving me toward a real feeling of fear or sadness or suspense, but they would ruin it by putting in a joke or a sight gag amidst the seriousness or tension. I know they were probably trying to cut the tension with the humor -- and yes, sometimes things can be extra funny because they allow us to release the built up anxiety or sadness, but to me these moments seemed like they ruined the tension or sadness rather than punctuating it. Granted, it's a fine line, but again I did not seem to be on the same page as the filmmakers.

P.S. I like Tilda Swinton as an actor but I think they should've kept the Ancient One as having Asian heritage.


  1. I recently visited save the cat and I couldn't agree with the video I watched I mean you have to properly establish everything after the first ten pages you have to know who the main character is by then, it sounds like people trying to paint writing and storytelling into a box. Is it too much to ask audiences to have a little patients. There shouldn't be a formula I appreciate that they recognize these formulas but they shouldn't be a necessity. Why can't a story unravel at whatever pace it needs to?

    1. Regarding your actual review it sounds like the movie is exactly what I expected. I really feel there isn't a whole lot to spoil in the mcu movies anymore they follow the formula to such an extent you can predict almost everything that is going to happen before the movie is a third of the way through.

      My biggest issue with MCU movies is that when it comes to origin stories they're just remaking Iron Man again and again while ensemble movies mostly remake the avengers. It's been 14 movies and I feel the MCU has only made two or three different movies they're all the same pretty much. SS was a step down but it was most definitely not the same as MOS and BVS.

    2. I agree that storytelling and art shouldn't follow a formula, but the reality is that quite a few studios and writers do follow formulas like the ones in Save the Cat. All major studio movies are for business, but I think some are much more for business and others are still fairly artful -- I think sometimes studio execs want a feel-good, crowd-pleasing hit and so they hire a screenwriter to specifically follow a formula that has worked in the past. The MCU seems to have done this, and they also go for tones and editing styles that have worked for them in the past, too. But it's other studios, too.

      One thing I like about MoS and BvS is that they didn't use a formula -- they really seemed like they were trying to tell their stories and in a pretty artful way. When I get into a movie and it's not a formula, it really draws me in more trying to analyze what is happening and what structure they're following. When I watch a movie and I can tell it's the formula, I definitely get pulled out.

    3. I agree with you there I always enjoy a movie more if I don't know what structure and plot beat they are following. This doesn't just extend to Marvel films it's a problem I am having with Disney in general lately. I feel most Disney scripts are like a checklist the studio makes that they mark off as the movie goes along, it doesn't feel genuine it feels artificial.

      The truth is very little is original these days everything is based off of something or follows some formula or story. In theory Bruce's arc in BVS has been told in every batman film franchise they all deep down have Bruce struggling with the same idea, Bruce rising beyond his feelings of powerlessness that have haunted him ever since his parents death. It's essentially the same Bruce becomes self destructive Alfred or someone else tries to reach him he eventually faces his guilt and feelings of powerlessness. Yet Batman-Batman Forever, The Dark Knight Trilogy, and Batman V Superman all feel like completely different stories. All being about the same character it's natural to have similar plot ideas yet it doesn't feel like that at all. Despite dealing with his parents death three times all feel unique and different in how the story handles them. To me that's what separates creativity from a formula being able to take a familiar idea and turn it into something new that goes in a different direction from it's inspiration.

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