Not since The Avengers has there been a Marvel film so necessary to be seen on the big screen. The psychedelic, spaced-out visuals that populate Doctor Strange make it a vital cinema experience to truly take in the kaleidoscopic wonder on offer. It’s just a pity that behind the glorious special effects is a superhero movie altogether indicative of the more tedious elements of Marvel’s now achingly formulaic approach.
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role, Doctor Strange is the story of Dr. Stephen Strange, an arrogantly brilliant surgeon who loses his ability to operate thanks to severe nerve damage in his hands from a car accident. Besotted without his life’s work, Strange becomes desperate in his search for a way to heal his hands, a search which eventually leads him to Nepal where a group of spiritual sorcerers led by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) take him in and begin teaching him their mystic ways, and of their endless struggle against dark forces.
The world of Doctor Strange is one that, though not altogether at odds with what’s come before in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, introduces several elements that fundamentally alters how the universe carries itself. The mystic properties Strange learns of include infinite dimensions and ancient artifacts that can manipulate time. There’s astral projection, forging weapons out of magic energy, globe-trotting via portals and sentient capes. It’s a lot to establish in one film, and to the director/writer Scott Derrickson and co-writer Christopher Cargill, most everything is given adequate explanation without deviating too much into expository history lesson.
This is helped by how genuinely comical the script is. Terms like the ‘Eye of Agamotto’ and ‘Dormammu’ make for great fun in comics but can easily sound completely silly when spoken out loud. A lively sense of humour combats this with regular jokes deriving from both the present nomenclature and the intersection of western and eastern cultures. Cumberbatch, whose American accent is remarkably bearable, puts his under-praised sense of timing to good use along with his co-stars in Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong, who play Mordo and Wong, Strange’s main mentors aside from the Ancient One. It’s not Guardians of the Galaxy funny by any stretch, but the humour does create self-awareness that, yeah, they know how far-fetched this all sounds to anyone who’s never read a Doctor Strange book before.
But while they play things safe with the respective parlance, they do anything but with the breadth of visual extravagance Strange’s corner of the Marvel universe gives access to. Cities fold in on themselves from several angles, dimensions collide and melt into each other, parts of the world are connected and traveled between with the ease of opening a door – think Christopher Nolan‘s Inception on acid with a preference for magnitude. Doctor Strange is a legitimate big budget cinematic trip, kept coherent by Derrickson‘s humble direction and under-pinned by Michael Giacchino‘s whirling score.
Which makes it a shame that for all the mind-bending mysticism, the story Doctor Strange tells is just so plain. All the tropes of a standard Marvel cinematic “origin” are present: love interest with questionable future in the franchise, villain with long-field value totally undermined, even watching Strange acquires his powers feels too reminiscent of the first Iron Man for its own good. Marvel’s films, particularly the first in a series, have come under fire before for their adherence to a set formula and Doctor Strange might be the most galling. The cast and talent assembled is among the strongest in the MCU’s lifespan, yet stars like Rachel McAdams and, most irritatingly from an in-built audience perspective, Mads “I made people sexually attracted to a cannibal serial killer” Mikkelsen seem all but wasted here.
Not to undersell the screenplay entirely, there are moments that really work. The Ancient One’s psuedo-Yoda philosophizing leaves a strong impression and the arc of Strange realizing his own limitations and accepting his loss hits hard when it wants to. Especially when Cumberbatch and McAdams‘ Christine, the only one truly close to Strange, share a scene together. It’s just that everything’s cheapened when the comedic overtones, lavish fireworks and grand exposition on existence seem like an attempt at a magic veil for Marvel Studios’ seemingly paint-by-numbers attitude to these movies. More sorcerer standard than sorcerer supreme.