When I reviewed Captain America: Civil War, I said that "the Marvel cinematic universe may be starting to collapse under its own weight". I probably should have said that "it's starting to buckle under its own weight", since Marvel is still a ways off from anything that resembles collapse. That movie also got better upon repeat viewings, but I feel much the same about the recently-released Doctor Strange. In much the same way that I had suspected that Suicide Squad must have taken place years (or decades) prior to Dawn of Justice, I had also assumed that Doctor Strange must have occurred (at least partly) prior to the events of the first Avengers movie.
The story of Doctor Strange is, after all, essentially a Doubting Thomas story. That would be fine if Doctor Strange were a stand-alone movie, but a Doubting Thomas story is a really difficult thing to buy into within the Marvel cinematic universe. By the beginning of the movie, Stephen Strange (who lives in New York) must surely be aware of (and possibly have first-hand experience with) superhumans since the events of the first Avengers movie. In a world in which the literal Norse God of Thunder Thor has descended from the mystical plane of Asgard, to team up with a gamma-powered Hulk and a super soldier frozen since World War II, to defend New York from an inter-dimensional alien invasion, can you really be all that skeptical of astral projection, alternate dimensions, or even blatant magic?
Avengers Tower is clearly visible.
If Doctor Strange's car accident and physical therapy took place long before the events of the first Avengers, then this skepticism would be excusable. If Strange spent years at Kamar Taj learning magic, while oblivious to the events of the Avengers movies, Winter Soldier, and Civil War, then that would be a satisfactory explanation for his ignorance. But I don't think that's the case. Doctor Strange was tight-lipped when it came to references to the other Marvel movies (potentially for this very reason), but Avengers Tower still shows up in the skyline, and I'm pretty sure there were references to the other super heroes in the first half of the movie. In fact, I'm pretty sure that Strange gets a phone call asking if he'd be willing to treat an Air Force colonel who broke his spine in experimental armor. This must surely be a reference to Rhodes' accident in Civil War.
Strange is asked if he'd be willing to treat Colonel Rhodes after injuries sustained in Civil War.
Maybe I'm being nitpicky, but buy-in is important in fantastical movies like this. But it's hard to buy into Stephen Strange, and it certainly doesn't help that he's an abrasive ass hole and isn't very likeable at the start of the movie. In fact, his abrasiveness completely turned my girlfriend off from the movie, and she walked out hating it because she hates Stephen Strange. That didn't bother me so much, as I thought it was actually a bit brave by Marvel to make the main character so unlikable and seemingly irredeemable. But I still disliked the Doubting Thomas aspect. This same problem palgues many episodes of The X-Files, in which Scully doggedly rejected Mulder's speculations, even though she has already seen much wilder stuff first-hand. Furthermore, Doubting Thomas stories kind of turn me off in general because of how they always make skeptics and rationalists look like villains - or at the very least, like intolerant, closed-minded bastards.
The reason that people don't believe in things like astral projection is because those claims have been tested and found to not work. In a world in which those things are real, then tests would reveal them to be real, and people would believe in and accept them - just as we believe in and accept relativity because out satellites and cell phones are dependent on it, and if relativity wasn't true, then those devices wouldn't work. It's very unlikely that mystical "truths" like this could be concealed from the general public, especially since entire religions have sprouted up around them. If it really were as simple as opening your mind, or being shown that these things are real, then everybody would believe it because it would be easy for adherents to demonstrate the truth of their claims, as the Ancient One does (without hesitation) in this movie. Every Doubting Thomas would be able to see and feel the wounds of Christ first-hand.
I dislike how skeptics are almost always depicted in media.
As for how well the movie works on its own: it's fine. Since it's another bloated origin story, the villain feels kind of throw-away and is poorly-developed. Yes, there is an Infinity Stone, but the movie didn't revolve around the stone. So I did like that this movie avoided the McGuffin-hunt plots that so many other Marvel films have fallen into, and that this villain actually has an agenda that goes beyond the simplistic revenge plots of movies like Civil War. Though the primary villain's boss doesn't seem to go much beyond "Arr! I'm the bad guy, and I'm going to destroy everything! Grr!"
There's a point in the movie when the villain almost manages to convince Strange that his actions may in fact be justifiable. There's some bickering about morality and ethics, and I started to wonder if this movie would actually do something with these themes and ideas and actually cast the heroes' actions in ambiguity. Not so.
Where this film excels is in the visuals. There are some poor-looking CG parts - especially involving Strange's Cloak of Levitation. A lot of the city-scape twisting stuff is also very derivative of Inception. But some of the scenes really work well, especially the ones with the kaleidoscope surfaces that look like they could be album covers for 60's psychedelic rock albums. There's one scene in particular late in the movie in which a fight scene occurs while time is running backwards. The choreography of this scene looked like it was probably very difficult to plan, and I was impressed with how well it turned out. This action scene is then followed by a particularly clever resolution to the core conflict that I really liked. The final duel is a duel of wits and patience rather than a battle of fisticuffs or throwing magic missiles at each other. I wish more of the movie had been as creative as this. So the ending is very strong, in my opinion.
The ultimate Big Baddie seems to just be evil for the sake of being evil, but the resolution to the conflict is clever.
The rest of the movie on the way to that ending is just very bleh and formulaic comic book stuff with flat humor. Heck, even the score seems like it was lifted straight from the Star Trek reboots (it is the same composer, after all), with a little Doctor Who influences towards the end. Ant Man and Winter Soldier impressed me by how genre-defying they were. Ant Man was a heist movie, and Winter Soldier was more of a spy thriller. I was hoping for Doctor Strange to go down an angle like that and maybe be a bit more of an arcane, supernatural thriller or genuine sci-fi. Instead, it just feels like every other comic book movie that comes out, and since it's a Marvel film, it's well enough put together that it's at least fun to watch.