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“It was… fine” – a Paint By Numbers Doctor Strange Movie Review (No Spoilers)

doctor-strange-posterLast night I went and saw the new Doctor Strange movie. It was… fine… That’s almost a weird review for me to give a Marvel movie. There’s this weird thing about fans of superhero movies. They tend to be very territorial. There’s an assumption that if you don’t love every movie then something is wrong with you. In particular, right now, there’s an assumption that people who like Marvel movies but don’t like DC movies are part of some vast conspiracy. I’ve been accused of being a DC hater after my last few superhero movie reviews. At least that’s better than a lot of the professional critics who get told that they’re on the take from Marvel. Well, I mean, maybe… I’d kill to be on the take from Marvel.

Anyway, If you’re one of those people who is waiting to hear someone who likes Marvel movies not rave about a Marvel movie…. well, here’s your moment. Doctor Strange was… fine. Really, that’s basically the best (and worst) I can say about it. It wasn’t great. But it wasn’t horrible either. It was actually kind of formulaic. It follows a very basic story structure. There’s no real surprises; there’s basically once “twist” in the whole movie and when it happens I just kinda said “oh, ok… so that’s the twist. Fine, I guess” and moved on.

Again, this isn’t bad. If I were teaching an intro to screenwriting class, the script would certainly get an A. It is a text book example of story building. Introduce the principle characters in the first ten minutes. Build an immediate complication for the protagonist to drive the plot. As the protagonist works through his complication, the wider plot unfolds for  the protagonist to work through Begin to dovetail these together. Add a twist to take us into the third act. Climax. Resolution, Denouement. Roll credits. Because it’s a Marvel movie, toss in a mid credits scene to set up the next movie on Marvel’s slate and an after credits scene to set up the next movie in this particular sequence. Fade to black.

That is the entire plot structure to the movie. With no spoilers. But also no specifics. Because that is the basic plot to about a billion movies. You can tweak it and move things around a bit to make it interesting if you want. This did not. This was a text book structure. It followed it perfectly. It knitted the whole thing together with some visually appealing set pieces. It casts half a dozen Academy Award calibre actors. The special effects are… well, I mean, basically someone dug up the old inception CGI software and turned the knob up to 11. But whatever. Inception was cool, right?

So you know… Inception on steroids. That’s… fine.

And there was some good stuff happening here. Benedict Cumberbatch did a good job. Chiwetel Ejiofor did a good job. Tilda Swinton did a really good job. In fact she was probably the best part of the movie. I expected that I’d spend my entire review writing about whether or not they pulled off the whitewashing/cultural appropriation/orientalism thing. But really, they basically did a great job of avoiding it. It was inoffensive. She is not the comics Ancient One in any sense other than in name. Honestly, if they had just named the character Umar it would have worked just as well (arguably even better for reasons I won’t get into because of spoilers — if someone asks, maybe I’ll say in the comments) except they would have had geeks complaining “Dr. Strange wasn’t trained by Umar! He was trained by the Ancient One! You bastards!!!” Of course 99% of geeks would be like “who the fuck is Umar” which would be fine, honestly… because that puts them right in line with the 99% of fans who were thinking “who the fuck is the Ancient One?”

But there’s nothing special about it. It was… fine.

And there were some not great things. Rachel McAdams has no real reason to be in the movie and certainly not much reason to be there as Christine Palmer, who has no real connection the Dr. Strange mythos at all. So much so that I bet 99% of Doctor Strange fans asked themselves “who the fuck is Christine Palmer?” She wasn’t bad in it. She was a completely non-offensive but ultimately formulaic love-interest. She had a few things to do, but mostly her entire purpose amounts to “hey, a good way to ground a movie character in reality is to show that he has a personal life and other real people who care about him so … uh… I guess he has a love story here. Hey, that chick who was nominated for Supporting Actress for Spotlight last year is kinda cute and she can act and stuff. Lets get her.” So she was a waste because she had nothing much to do. But she did the very little that she had to do very well. Similarly Benedict Wong didn’t have a ton to do as Wong. I also feel like he got cast simply because his name was already right. But he was good in the few things that he got to do and was a little closer to the main plot than McAdams so a little better integrated even if there wasn’t much for him to do.

But there’s nothing special about either of them. They were… fine.

And really, fine is good. Structurally, it was a much better movie than Suicide Squad. All of the pieces came together. It didn’t have anything in it that was offensively bad. Suicide Squad was NOT fine in many many many ways… but I actually had much more fun watching it. This is a better movie. Suicide Squad is a much more fun movie. They’re a wash.

But they were both worth watching and I feel like that’s enough of an accomplishment. At the end of the day, this wasn’t a bad movie. But I found myself being more excited by the previews for Wonder Woman and Guardians of the Galaxy 2, which were before the film than I was about the perfectly serviceable movie I was watching. And that was a similar effect that I got from watching Sucide Squad. And that’s maybe a problem but it’s not a big one. I still enjoyed myself for the time that I was sitting in the seat.

★★★☆☆(3 out of 5 stars)

I feel like I should review more non-geek movies. I see a lot of movies… like really a lot. And I only ever bother to write these up for the science fiction and comic booky ones. Should I do them for others as well? Would people even care?

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