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What the critics are saying about Doctor Strange

After the commercial and critical success of Captain America: Civil War earlier this year, many fans are wondering if Marvel Studios can repeat that success with Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the neurotic neurosurgeon turned sorcerer superhero. Due to hit theaters in the United States on November 4, Strange's recent press premiere allowed movie critics to get an early look at the film before its official release, and their reviews hit the presses on October 23. Will Doctor Strange wow the fans who have been waiting decades for a faithful live-action adaptation? Or will they be disappointed? Let's see what the critics have to say.

Like Iron Man on acid

Out of the gate, you should be aware that Doctor Strange is, after all, a Marvel origin story, and as such, critics have given the movie a bit of criticism for its somewhat formulaic plot—one which heavily echoes first franchise installments like 2008's Iron Man. Tony Stark is a rich, attractive, and self-absorbed narcissist, who undergoes radical medical treatment after being mortally wounded. He goes on to learn some humility along with mastering his new super-powers, eventually saving the day. Replace "Tony Stark" with "Stephen Strange," and you pretty much have the basic plot of Doctor Strange. As Mike Ryan at Uproxx pointed out, "It seems pretty obvious that Marvel is banking that Benedict Cumberbatch's Stephen Strange will be their new go-to character as Downey (now 51) isn't going to play Tony Stark forever."

That being said, a formulaic origin story isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it serves to introduce a wide audience to a second-tier comic book hero largely unfamiliar to mainstream audiences, and provides Marvel with a chance to spark new interest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. IndieWire's David Ehrlich agrees, commenting, "it's hard to tell if Marvel is renovating its property or flat-out resetting it." A fairly simple plot allows moviegoers to sit back and enjoy the amazing visual storytelling, all the while understanding that Doctor Strange will definitely play a major role in "Phase Three" of the MCU, with Cumberbatch and Benedict Wong both set to return in 2018's Avengers: Infinity War.

It's visually dazzling

There's one thing about Doctor Strange that all the critics seem to agree on: the visual effects are simply stunning. Over at The /Filmcast, critic Jeff Cannata sent out some enticing Tweets after seeing Doctor Strange: "It is better than I could have ever hoped for. Among the very best Marvel films. It dazzles and entertains throughout. Remember when The Matrix made you rethink what was possible in an action sequence? Dr. Strange does that four or five times." One of these pivotal action scenes—involving the New York City landscape wildly folding on itself as if seen through a kaleidoscope—has been compared to an M.C. Escher painting and the best parts of Inception.

Several critics even went so far as to recommend that viewers see the movie in 3D—a rare endorsement, even in 2016. Jen Yamato at The Daily Beast claims, "The 3D work is immersive when Derrickson shoots in naturalistic settings on location in Kathmandu, and transportive when he uses it to distort depth and perception in its more fantastical sequences." Allyson Gronowitz over at Polygon adds, "With the 3D effects, you don't merely watch Doctor Strange's astral projection trip through the dazzling interdimensional cosmos — you experience it."

A strong performance by the cast

Critics have also praised the cast, including Christina Radish of Collider, who says it has "one of the best ensemble casts I've seen in a long time." Other critics have been particularly effusive in their praise for Tilda Swinton, who portrays the mystical guru the Ancient One. While Swinton's casting in the role initially drew "whitewashing" criticism, Brian Truitt at USA Today hails Swinton, saying, "As the Ancient One, Swinton adds sass, emotional depth and a little frailty to the wise-warrior archetype. Her performance will put to rest any remaining concerns about the character not being the Asian man of the comics." David Ehrlich at IndieWire concurs, adding, "remember how cool it was when Yoda finally threw down at the end of Attack of the Clones? Watching Tilda Swinton roll up her sleeves is better—way better."

Cumberbatch's performance has been generally well-received, with most critics praising his portrayal of the egocentric Strange—although a few (like Allyson Gronowitz) did call him out for a sometimes dodgy American accent. The supporting cast got several good reviews as well. "Chiwetel Ejiofor as [Baron] Mordo is a steady counterpoint, all bottled intensity and control," raves Jeff Cannata. "Mordo is a fascinating character whose motives are every bit as complex as Strange's. Those who wish there were more of him in the film would be advised to stick around through both post-credits bonus scenes," adds Peter Debruge of Variety. Mads Mikkelsen and Rachel McAdams are also given praise for their portrayal of the formulaic villain and love interest, respectively (more on that later), while Wong is given a beefed-up role from the "tea-serving manservant" of the comic books, admirably portraying a stoic warrior-slash-librarian who will obviously have a larger role to play in future films.

The humor is forced at times

In general, Doctor Strange has received only middling reviews for its humor, which was primarily added later into the script by Community co-creator Dan Harmon. Erik Davis of Movies.com summed up the sentiment fairly well with his tweet after watching the movie: "If Doctor Strange has a weak spot, it's [with] its humor. Doesn't mesh as well as it does in other Marvel movies." While Dino-Ray Ramos at Tracking Board felt that it was "surprisingly filled with a lot of jokes that land very well," and Alonso Duralde at The Wrap called it "funny, freaky adventure," most reviewers were more ambivalent about the humor overall.

However, the majority of critics agree that the comedic chemistry between Cumberbatch and Wong is first-rate. Wong plays "the straight man to Cumberbatch's relentlessly wisecracking Strange," which Eric Goldman at IGN called an "an amusing dynamic," and Brian Truitt of USA Today concludes, "Some of the goofier gags fall flat but scenes between Strange and hard-nosed librarian/drill sergeant Wong sparkle."

A great standalone movie

If you enjoy self-contained superhero stories with no crossover elements to distract you from the story, you'll probably love Doctor Strange. As we previously mentioned, the film will remind you a bit of Iron Man, and part of that is due to how solely engrossed in the main character's world we remain. Mike Ryan of Uproxx put it perfectly: "At no point do characters decide, 'Hey, let's go see what Hawkeye is up to!'" Nobody else from the MCU is going to unexpectedly show up to ruin viewer immersion in the tale of Stephen Strange. Jeff Cannata concurs: "Perhaps not since the very first few Marvel Studios films has there been a more standalone, single hero story without overlap to the broader cinematic tapestry." The fact that Doctor Strange has received mostly glowing reviews so far, combined with a box office projection of $55-75 million for the opening weekend, means we'll likely be seeing Strange sequels for years to come.

Solid original score

Marvel Studio films usually seem to not offer much in the way of exciting original musical scores. According to the reviews we've seen thus far, that's definitely not the case with Doctor Strange. Many critics have made glowing mentions of the film's original score, created by award-winning composer Michael Giacchino (Lost, Up, Star Trek.) Jen Yamato called the score "memorably electric," while Eric Goldman felt it was "appropriately quirky." According to David Ehrlich, Doctor Strange offers "something I never thought I'd see: a Marvel movie with a good original score. What a time to be alive." He later added, "miracle of miracles, there's finally a Marvel movie with a memorable, personality-driven score! That's what you get when you hire Michael Giacchino."

Suffers from familiar Marvel failings

If you're familiar with the current Marvel Cinematic Universe, you probably are aware of its common failings—an underwhelming villain and generic love interest. Unfortunately, Doctor Strange is no exception to the rule. While Mads Mikkelsen has generally been praised for his role as the villain Kaecilius, some reviewers complained that his role was not fleshed out as much as it could have been. As Eric Goldman put it: "Ultimately Kaecilius simply isn't in enough of the movie to feel fully formed. We are given some info on his backstory and connection to the Ancient One, but it could have been used in bigger, more in-depth ways." Jeff Cannata adds that the former protégé-turned-adversary "is only a speed bump in our hero's way, generic in his villainy."

Similarly, Rachel McAdams has been praised for her portrayal of Strange's colleague and ex-lover, by providing "a much-needed degree of groundedness to the bizarre goings-on." Peter Debruge calls her character—ER doctor Christine Palmer—"the most competent—and human—of Marvel's window-dressing girlfriends." Unfortunately, "she isn't given all that much to do of note beyond some amusing reactions to things occurring around her."

Faithful to the comic's original style

Fans of the original Stan Lee and Steve Ditko creation will be pleased by the film, which stays faithful to many aspects of the comic book while updating it for a 2016 audience. The kaleidoscopic visuals have been described as looking like "something ripped straight out of the pages of classic Doctor Strange comics," and "wild other-dimensional sequences clearly influenced by the iconic Marvel artist's 1960s depiction of Strange's adventures."

The original psychedelic art style provided by Ditko in the '60s to appeal to the current counter-culture movement is not lost, as Polygon reviewer Allyson Gronowitz points out: "VFX technology has advanced to the point where the kaleidoscopic iridescence of Ditko's original artwork can actually be represented and even surpassed onscreen." Gronowitz also feels that Doctor Strange fits a niche in today's stable of superhero movies: "The surrealist mysticism of Doctor Strange provides a much-needed tonic for the gritty realism of Marvel's Netflix shows and the hyper-politicized Captain America: Civil War."

Besides the stunning visual style, comic book fans will also find plenty of other Easter eggs to make them happy, including the Eye of Agamotto, Strange's Cloak of Levitation, as well as the Sanctum Sanctorum—filled with details which will provide hours of happy re-watching.

The final verdict

From what reviewers are saying, Doctor Strange is a solid entry into the MCU, with Marvel stepping up the visual effects game in a way that will surely be emulated for years to come. The ensemble cast gave a solid performance, and while the plot may be formulaic at times, the stunning visuals, enchanting score, and exciting action sequences more than make up for the failings of the film. Longtime Strange fans as well as new audiences will all find something to love about Doctor Strange—be sure to stick around for the two post-credits scenes for exciting glimpses at what the future holds for Strange, Wong, Mordo, and the rest of the characters. One thing is for sure: this won't be the last we'll see of Stephen Strange.