This may or may not be a controversial stance among superhero movie aficionados right now, I can’t really tell either way, but I’m gonna go ahead anyway: Doctor Strange is the best Marvel movie since Avengers: Age of Ultron, possibly even Guardians of the Galaxy.
Comparing big team-up movies like Civil War with ones focused on a solo hero like Doctor Strange or Ant-Man, so in examining what I think Doctor Strange does well, I’ll mostly stick to comparing other movies of its type. I also realize that I wasn’t as crazy about Civil War as some others, but that’s a whole other can of worms; maybe I’ll touch on it another day. For now, I want to focus on what I think Doctor Strange does well (and, relatedly, what I think Ant-Man could have done better).
There are a whole bunch of smaller reasons that I can get out of the way. I loved the visuals of Doctor Strange; the shots of alien other dimensions were captivating, but even the scenes on earth were interesting in a way that I can’t say Ant-Man matched. And I thought the cast in Strange was all-around better; Paul Rudd was fine as Scott Lang, his normal charming self, but it felt like a lower-tier level of charming considering the actor that didn’t quite capture my interest (it probably didn’t help that the last Paul Rudd performance I saw before Ant-Man was They Came Together, in which he’s the most goofy and likeable that I’ve seen him, so maybe it was just raised expectations). Benedict Cumberbatch disappeared into his role in a way that made me forget I was watching someone who wasn’t actually Stephen Strange (in spite of my initial reaction of “I will never get over hearing him speak without an English accent”). And I would rate the rest of the cast’s performances higher overall as well.
The writing probably did most of the work, though, for a variety of reasons. Doctor Strange kept it’s “unusual-ness” throughout, in a way that Ant-Man didn’t. The latter billed itself as something of a “superhero-heist movie”, and it…kind of was, I guess? Really, the “heist” bits were contained to one section in the second act (maybe two, if we’re counting Scott stealing the suit, but I’m not sure I would totally count that, given it was a small burglary and structured more like a standard action movie/problem solving piece), with the training for said heist coming in the form of a standard “superhero training” sequence. And upon reaching the goal of the heist…the rug was pulled out from under us and we got a standard act three superhero battle.
Doctor Strange didn’t commit at all to being much other than a superhero movie with magic, but it kept that focus on the mystic and unusual for the entire time, and the final set piece did much more to stand out. “Rewinding” the destruction in Hong Kong was clever and fun to watch, and completely skipping the final battle to deal with outwitting the villain to draw them into a bargain was unexpected and perfectly in character.
But there’s more to it. Doctor Strange was much more focused, almost to its detriment. It cut down on a lot of extraneous characters that cluttered the edge of Ant-Man to draw focus on Stephen, Mordo, and the Ancient One to a much tighter degree than the former did with it’s main trio. Not to say it’s perfect; I felt Strange could have done more with Wong, Kaecilius, and Christine Palmer*, but then, I don’t think it did much worse than Ant-Man did with its closest comparisons (Luis, Cross, and take your pick for the third). But that main trio is definitely stronger, and the part that I think makes the biggest difference between the two.
* And given how short the film felt, this is especially irritating; I could have done with another fifteen minutes of fleshing them out. Or even world-building, given how much there is to explain about the world of magic. None of that is technically super-critical, but it would have been nice. Although I suppose it’s preferable to be left wanting more over the opposite.
Stephen Strange is just a much more interesting character than Scott Lang. Maybe that’s why I felt Paul Rudd’s performance was less interesting, that he didn’t have as much to work with, but I’d definitely stand by saying the part was underwritten. There’s just no arc to Scott in the movie; he starts the movie a burglar with a big heart trying to do the right thing and stay out of prison for his daughter, and he ends it basically in the same place, except now he has superpowers, a girlfriend, a mentor, and a job. He’s even still a burglar! We see him break into as many places as a superhero as he did before becoming one.* And even when he went to prison, it was for hacking a company that was defrauding customers; he was basically already a superhero, he just needed the suit.
*And if you want to extend his arc to Civil War, he actually goes backwards; he’s totally willing to throw away the “stay out of prison for his daughter” part over…a guy he stole something from asking a favor.
This is a problem pretty specific to the movies; Nick Spencer’s recent take on Ant-Man has been one of my favorite runs in all of comics this year.* And as a serialized story, it can’t give Scott a character arc as easily as a one-shot, two hour movie. But Spencer does have Scott struggling with his flaws: he’s a mostly smart guy who’s a little to quick to run away from his issues instead of facing them, and a nice guy who cares about others but doesn’t always have the empathy to see things the way they do and sometimes unintentionally hurts them as a result. But he recognizes all of that and he’s working to improve.
*Maybe I’ll release a year-end best-of article? Who knows.
It’s tragic and compelling and keeps you rooting for a relatable guy trying his best who sometimes screws up in a complex world like ours (plus the added complexity of dealing with supervillains and all that). It’s just that the movie capture none of that. If anything, Hope and Hank and their relation are the emotional core of the movie, showing actual growth and reconnecting after years of shutting each other off for their own reasons, but they are the secondary plot while focus remains on Scott, since he’s the superhero.
Compare that with Doctor Strange; The Ancient One and Mordo are interesting characters as well in their own way, but writers Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill remembered to give Stephen something to do as well. He’s egotistical at the start, a doctor who has done incredible things, and when he loses that ability, realizes how he hadn’t been doing as much good as he liked to think, and had even been hurting others along the way.*
*I’ve seen some argue that it’s the same as Tony Stark’s growth in Iron Man, but I’d disagree. Tony is still an egomaniac in every movie, as that wasn’t the flaw he had to overcome in his first movie; it was his total self-centered indifference to everyone and everything else in the world, and his attempt to atone for the harm he had caused via weapons and such. Strange, in comparison, became a doctor to help people; part of his ego was pride in how much he had helped, and his growth is in realizing how small he is in the grand scheme of things, and how many more people he could have been helping. He has to totally set aside his ego, where Tony can work around his (and even use it to motivate himself). It’s an interesting take, especially from a director in Derrickson who is very public about his faith.
Once he’s learned to set aside that pride, it takes on a normal “superhero training” feel until after the second act, when Stephen has to reconcile this superhero-ing with his training as a doctor to avoid harm. It’s part of what makes the final “non-fight scene” so interesting; it’s him avoiding violence and reconciling those two sides of him, as well as a final confirmation of his initial growth, as he is willing to sacrifice himself totally, condemned to an eternity of repeating his death, in order to spare his entire dimension. He has totally set aside his ego. Compared to all of that, Scott Lang’s lack of any notable growth is especially frustrating.
All of the amazing visuals (definitely the best since Guardians) are fantastic and all, but it’s definitely Marvel’s tightest movie story-wise in a while (also the best since Guardians). I’m not sure that I’d quite put it in the company’s upper-tier, but it’s probably in the next level below that.