I've recently begun watching Marvel Comics' line of straight-to-DVD animation films partly because I was bored and had only just discovered them and needed some variation in my uneventful life and partly because I really love animation films. Animation is one of those mediums I treasure because it grants escape from the trappings of reality, gravity and the laws of physics, enabling it to show you sights that couldn't possibly exist in real life, like the Hulk latching onto the throat of a 60 foot man and choking the life out of him. That said, I was put off by the previous 'installments', if you can call these Marvel animations a series. The Ultimate Avengers movies of 2006 had a plot thinner than Christian Bale during the shooting of The Machinist, and was for all intents and purposes like a dead Christmas tree; covered in glittering action sequences but barren inside. Not that I expect much depth from a dozen vaguely related comic book franchises blended together into the big pile of paperbacks and money that is Ultimate avengers. I'm sure every one of these superheroes had their own story, with their own issues to work out, but there simply isn't time for all that if at least half of the movie has to consist of rampant action sequences. This is all fine, you know. These are movies for comic book fans who would like to see their favorite superhero jump out of the comic book panels and kick ass in animation, but some characterization would be nice. This movie is very much made for religious comic book readers and seems to assume awareness of the characters' back stories which in that case you are because you accompanied them through every page of their comic book series, and as such this movie doesn't really need to characterize them and therefore does so only vaguely. The only character I ended up empathizing with was Bruce Banner who, depressed and troubled by the Hulk, is desperate to find a way to control it. Maybe it was because I can unconsciously relate to an unattractive, bespectacled nerd who just likes to throw down and go Hulk Smash on all the bullies that took his lunch money in high school, or maybe because he was the only character whose flaws were more than informed and whose portrayal left me wanting to see more. Anyway I was supposed to be talking about another movie.
Doctor Strange was an interesting premise for me from the get-go because I knew absolutely nothing about Doctor Strange, and I was looking forward to have this movie inform me about who he was and what drove him to become who he is today. I was surprised by the depth of this movie, which immediately immersed me its darker, more realistic tone. The doctor is a complex character, once kindhearted, driven and confident, now disillusioned, angry and full of unresolved grief. When first we see the good doctor - voiced in smooth baritones by Bryce Johnson - in the hospital he is refusing a patient who in a masterful dig at US medical policy was neither rich nor sick enough to warrant his interest, satire. It made it immediately clear that this guy had issues. Here is a hero who is also a flawed human being who isn't built like a vending machine with legs and to its credit the movie never glosses over things. This is truly not a movie for kids anymore, and Doctor Strange never divorces itself from reality too far; no super serums or gamma rays granting super powers here, but a spiritual journey that forces the good doctor to reconcile with his past. Even the magic shown seems to have its roots in eastern philosophies and martial arts, both of which are plausibly and satisfyingly portrayed. The movie is well-paced, interrupting the plot with occasional flashes of action exactly when needed, and giving time to let the story reach its logical conclusion. When the movie was over, I was left in its wake, wanting more, and not just because it was so good. It was too short.
At just over 70 minutes, this movie, like the Marvel animes that preceded it, is short. But Doctor Strange is the only one of those movies that actually feels short. The reason why this movie feels too short is because I feel that there are two stories here, woven together less than seamlessly, leaving insufficient time to make the most of either of them, although only people that have read the comics will be able to determine whether I'm right about that or not. There is the origin story of Doctor Strange in which he finds his true calling as the sorcerer supreme that people know from the books, and then there's the other story about an evil entity of pure magical energy that wants to take over the world. Which of these you find the more interesting probably depends on your prior understanding of the Doctor Strange mythos (for a Marvel-novice like me, the origin story definitely won that one), but there was the potential for true excellence here that went sadly untapped. 20 to 30 minutes of additional runtime would have probably been enough to bring out the true heart in both stories, but as it stands the movie left me slightly unfulfilled. I was left wanting to know more of Doctor Strange's rise to Sorcerer Supreme; it went by too fast, like important tidbits that would have greatly enriched the setting had been omitted for the sake of brevity, and that's a shame I think. Kind of like if Batman Begins was only 73 minutes long. 3 stars.