I think the superhero origin story needs to be resigned for good. We’ve seen it countless times before, and each iteration gets even less interesting than the next. We all know the formula: Before getting their superpowers and/or donning the costume, the hero usually experiences a tragedy that motivates them to start fighting crime and become a superhero. Said tragedy frequently involves the death of a loved one. If the hero doesn’t experience a tragedy, it will consist of them getting their powers at a tremendous cost, such as being unable to continue living their normal lives (Deadpool and The Hulk are prime examples of this). This doesn’t happen to all superheroes of course, but the story trope has become so derivative that when the basic formula is followed, you can begin predicting every beat that the film will reach until the end.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this trope. Characters in any genre are given tragic backstories all the time, but doing it in the superhero genre tends to limit the rest of the story, which is glaringly apparent in the film Doctor Strange. The movie introduces Doctor Strange living out his normal life as an acclaimed neurosurgeon, which abruptly changes after he experiences a horrific accident. We then see him reach his lowest point, which urges him to search far and wide for a possible cure for his damaged hands. He finds his last hope in Nepal, where he’s accepted by a mysterious figure called the Ancient One who agrees to teach him her ways. We then follow Doctor Strange as he learns to access the powers of the astral plane and other dimensions. By the time he’s competent enough to get actively involved in the plot, the movie is already at its halfway point.
This isn’t necessarily a bad way to structure the film, but I kept wanting it to move at an even faster rate during the first half because I was more interested in the plot and world of the film rather than its lead character. Watching Doctor Strange’s struggle to access the abilities of the Ancient One isn’t as interesting as seeing the characters use these powers to advance the plot.
It’s clear that the film was using Doctor Strange as the audience’s guide into its far-reaching cosmic world, but I truly feel that the fish-out-of-water character was unnecessary in this case. The audience didn’t need a guide to hold their hand and react with them to all the weird and wonderful things that happen in the film. I feel that genre films with remarkable and otherworldy concepts and characters like Doctor Strange have become so prevalent in the mainstream that audiences now find it incredibly easy to accept the bizzare as long as it’s executed properly by the filmmakers.
A great example is Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s easy to take for granted now, but that film was Marvel’s biggest risk at the time. The characters were mostly unfamiliar even to some avid comic book readers, and it’s about as outlandish and weird as sci-fi fantasy films can get. A majority of its main characters are all aliens, one of which is a talking raccoon and the other a talking tree. But the film is structured in a way that doesn’t beat you with long-winded exposition trying to explain all the whacky things that you’re seeing onscreen. After a brief introductory backstory for its main character, the film simply begins its plot and introduces the characters along the way as they travel across galaxies to serve their own interests until they ultimately team up for the greater good. It was a huge critical and commercial success, and I think it’s easily one of the best comic book films of all-time.
Contrast that with Doctor Strange, which had to go through all the familiar beats of an origin story before the plot can truly kick in. I would’ve greatly preferred it if the film focused more on the Ancient One, at least for the first half, and her conflict with Kaecilius’ plans. Had the film explored more of the strained master-apprentice relationship between the Ancient One and Kaecilius, the film wouldn’t have needed to resort to characters delivering long monologues about their motivations and clumsily explaining important plot points to the audience. Whenever I imagine a film where Doctor Strange is introduced as already having his powers from the very beginning, I can’t help but greatly prefer that version to what we got instead.
Still, the film has so many strengths, particularly in its visuals, that it’s almost enough to overcome many of its narrative weaknesses. Doctor Strange is truly unlike any superhero film we’ve ever seen before, and director Scott Derrickson and his team of visual effects artists managed to portray the reality-bending powers of the characters in truly awe-inspiring ways. It’s easy to get jaded nowadays regarding visual effects since filmmaking technology is sophisticated enough that we are treated with numerous effects-heavy blockbuster films every year, but Doctor Strange is breathtaking in its imagination and execution. The film is rife with so much impressive CGI, but at no point does it get overwhelming or exhausting. In fact, the film leaves you wanting so much more despite being treated to such a visually impactful and impressive experience.
And just when you think you’ve seen all that the film can offer, it saves the best for last during its climax set in Hong Kong. It’s hard to imagine the film managing to top its New York action scene, but it does so in such a spectacular fashion that left me absolutely stunned. At the hands of a lesser director, these scenes could’ve easily been too difficult to follow and confusing instead of thrilling, but Derrickson and his team skillfully executes them in a way that ensures clarity while maintaining maximum impact.
Whatever problems and nitpicks I have with the film’s narrative structure is overshadowed by what an incredible moviegoing experience Doctor Strange provides. This doesn’t excuse its weaknesses of course, but Doctor Strange is one of the few instances where its visual strengths are so good that it helps to elevate the film rather than serve as a nice consolation prize for its middling storytelling. Still, the film ultimately fails to achieve its full potential at the end of the day. I sincerely enjoyed it but even within the supehero genre, Doctor Strange doesn’t stand out too much among the rest in spite of its incredible visuals. It’s still a worthy entry into the Marvel franchise, but I suppose we’ll have to wait and see the character reach his full potential in future films instead.