It's almost getting to the point where the release of a new Marvel Studios Movie is greeted with a wave of reviews that almost copy/pasted from the last one, along with the usual barrage of "hot takes". After all, Doctor Strange is the fourteenth film in the MCU, a movie franchise with patterns just as strongly established as say, James Bond, so to an extent if you like the others (to lesser or greater degrees) you can be confident you'll like this, and vice versa. Marvel has a process, and a template, that it know works, and it's not going to change those fundamentals until it can be demonstrated that they don't work. Maybe this sounds defensive, but it's not supposed to - I like the MCU films, I get out of them what I want from them, but at the same time much of the commentary around is superfluous, unless something radically differnet happens. And Doctor Strange isn't radically different, not really, attempted appearances to the contrary.
So the trailers for Doctor Strange leant heavily on the films apparent desire to be the MCU's answer to Inception with it's eye-popping twisted streets and reality distorting effects. It's also an attempt to draw on the psychadelic art style of the early Doctor Strange comics, positing parallel dimensions and magic spells, and somehow marry them into the very techo-rationalist universe that audiences are familiar with, especially as we haven't had a stand-alone Thor movie for a few years. From a franchise point of view, this is a film with a lot to do, but in way that widens it, rather than moving the wider plot forward, and thats a bit of a double edged sword for it.
So what you get is a film with a strikingly small cast that carries on its plot in secret corners of the world. It's timeline is a little hazy, as it seems to start a few years back and overlaps the other recent films as Strange trains up in Nepal (rather than Tibet, presumably to make sure the film gets a Chinese release). But it also posits that secret, mystic wars have been waged for centuries, and manages to give a decent explanation by the end of the film why they will suddenly become more open, which is neat, as well as using that setup to avoid the final act city devastating ending that seems to be the curse of far too many superhero movies from pretty much every studio.
The usual Marvel strengths are on display here - the casting is solid, including some big names showing up to give the blockbuster a bit of credibility. Scenery is chewed when it needs to be, but enough naturalism sticks around to keep the silliness grounded enough, and both Strange and Mordo end the movie with a distance still to go before becoming the "Sourcerer Supreme" and his nemesis. Well, one of them, anyway. It's not a hugely funny movie though - less serious in tone than Civil War, for instance but also less quippy, with a dry, wry sensibilty that I rather liked, rather than going for the big laughs in between the mayhem.
But what makes it stand out, really? Underneath it all the plot beats are extremely familiar, and Strange's transistion from Selfish to Selfless is really superhero 101, for all Cumberbatch gives it a good go. That said, a the action sequences are inventive and fantastic to look at, if occasionally overloaded, and the aforementioned small cast gives everyone a little bit more time to register amongst the blaze of special effects. The magic itself manages to look not stupid, which is something movies have struggled with in the past. And finally, I think the actual final confrontation and resolution being a problem you think around, rather than punch around, was a welcome shift in tone and dynamic.
So I liked it - although I was probably pre-disposed to. I don't think it will convert anyone ot the joys of the MCU but then given the scale of the franchise I don't think it needs to. What it needed to do was continue Phase 3's transistion from it's early heroes into a wider base, and bring in more elements of their wider universe, which i think it's been pretty successful at.
Finally, as is now traditional, I try to slot it into my overall MCU films list:
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Captain America: Civil War
Captain America; The First Avenger
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
Iron Man 2
The Incredible Hulk