Although garnering a generally positive response from critics and audiences alike, Doctor Strange has been criticized of following the Marvel formula too hard, bearing structural similarities to Iron Man (2008) and Ant-Man (2015). But how much merit does this argument have and is it really a fair criticism?
(Doctor Strange spoilers included)
When it comes to it, Doctor Strange is a superhero origin story and usually this means following certain conventions. There's only so many ways you can tell an origin story; you introduce a hero who discovers his superpowers, often under the guidance of a wise old mentor figure, and must fight a villain that reflects his new found life. While this may be very standard and not exactly courageous, this isn't something unique to Marvel or even superheroes. It's basically the Hero's Journey, one of the most basic story structures possible that you can see in Star Wars, The Matrix etc. Marvel Studios had previously promised no more origin stories, but Strange is kind of an exception, due to how inherently weird the actual subject matter is.
It's a safe, easy direction to go in, but there's a specific reason for it. It's easy to forget that most of the movie-going audience aren't familiar with the weird, mystical side of the Marvel universe. This safe structure makes it easier to introduce audiences to this very different new world and allows more creative decisions in the long run. Look at the amazing visuals that Doctor Strange provided, along with plenty of incredibly creative sequences. How often do you see the climactic fight take place inside a reversing scene of chaos? It could be done more bravely, but it serves the purpose it was intended for.
But where does this fit into the MCU? How much similarity does it actually bear to the other origin stories? Admittedly plenty, but only in the most basic narrative structure that is certainly present in Iron Man, Captain America and Ant-Man. But the actual content beyond that is wildly different, from war movie to heist film. The most similar is Iron Man, but even there the similarities are really only surface deep. Both Strange and Tony Stark have extremely similar starting points and similar end points, this is definitely true, but they take wildly different journeys between these points, with hugely different context.
Everything from the villains, the supporting characters and the actual story itself is something different. Are Kaecillius and Obadiah Stane the same type of villain? Who is the Ancient One's equivalent in Iron Man, or even Mordo? And despite the similarities in the protagonists, especially in their journeys and personalities, they serve very different roles in the narrative. Iron Man built its universe around the title character, it was a story that revolved completely around him and the world he was creating. But with Stephen Strange, he is the audience surrogate that serves to introduce this already existing world, who has to learn his place in it. There's also an argument to be made that Benedict Cumberbatch's Strange is being set up to take over Robert Downey Jr.'s role in the MCU, which goes a little way to explaining the similarities.
My point being is that if we write off every movie that uses these types of story structure, we're going to run pretty short on movies. The primary difference here is that Marvel is being held to a high standard, which is certainly a good thing in itself, and that it's easier to compare them when they are all under the same franchise. But do we forget how 'risky' some of these movies have been? Look at Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), which many thought was simply too weird to work and ended up being a huge success. Or this year's very well received Civil War, which was in no way similar to the other films in the franchise and still did extremely well. Even The Avengers was a risky move at the time.
Doctor Strange may be safe in a lot of ways, but it's unfair to accuse the MCU of being stagnant or telling the same story over and over again. There's a lot of similarities in the way they structure these stories, but the actual meat is different and, to be fair, it continuously works. Even the worst Marvel movies are often entertaining at the very least. And if we look at the next movies to come from Marvel, we have a Guardians sequel, a Thor and Hulk buddy-road trip movie and Spider-Man and Black Panther, who don't need origin stories like Strange did thanks to their introductions in Civil War. All this points towards movies that will be playing outside the expected box.
At the end of it, Doctor Strange is still a very entertaining movie, with a strong cast, incredible visuals and set pieces that were worth the price of admission to me. It bears some surface similarities to other films in the franchise but ultimately I feel it's a criticism that isn't wholly deserved and does an injustice to the areas that the film and the franchise itself have excelled at. The film's resolution is genuinely interesting and something unique to the MCU. The safe decisions allow for more creativity in the meat of the story and set up a great new side of the franchise to be explored in future stories.
The MCU inevitably is an investment, which may not be to everyone's taste, but in that respect Doctor Strange is still a plenty satisfying addition.