The Marvel movies that exist slightly outside of the Avengers orbit have a bit of a tricky situation on their hands. They’re given much more freedom, and are less restricted by existing storylines, allowing us the intergalactic funk of Guardians of the Galaxy. However, their style can’t be too extreme, or else they’ll clash when they inevitably join the rest of the squad, as seen in the drab approach Ant-Man took to the material. Ant-Man may have benefited from a bit more crazy behind the camera, but Doctor Strange, the newest addition to the MCU lineup, cleverly gets around this by building the crazy right into the structure of its world. The style of the special effects is like nothing you would see in Thor or Iron Man, but it’s not presented as a trick of the camera; by allowing some batshit crazy magical powers, batshit crazy visual tricks still fit the house style. Unfortunately, while the fantastical moments are far-and-away the best reason to see the movie, they necessitate a deeply silly mythology, and greatly outshine the least interesting cast of characters in any major MCU release outside of maybe The Incredible Hulk.
Donning the cape is Benedict Cumberbatch, who essentially plays the role he seems to always play as an effortlessly competent and talented individual with contempt for those who can’t perform at his level (he insulting calls someone a “Bachelors degree” at one point). It recalls his Sherlock, obviously, but also Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, who similarly started off full of hubris and has seemingly boundless intelligence just because. But where Downey’s sardonic Stark is lovably self-deprecating, Cumberbatch’s Strange is infuriatingly smug. Where Stark applied knowledge he gained from his engineering background in his superhero persona, Strange is simply adept at wizardry and neurosurgery because he’s brilliant. It feels very much like a Chosen One kind of story, and while his ego is shot down often by Rachel McAdams’ love interest and Tilda Swinton’s guru, his natural competence flies directly in the face of those criticisms. He does brilliantly all while being a self-absorbed elitist narcissist about it, without the charisma to offset it (Cumberbatch’s natural charm is majorly blunted by his forced and completely unnecessary American accent).
There’s little in the rest of the story to really add much interest. Swinton’s The Ancient One is perhaps the sole bright spot, a fantastically designed character who is granted the movie’s sole moving moment, but Chiwetel Ejiofor’s fellow sorceror Mordo is underserved, Rachel McAdams is given a thankless role, and Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is an unfortunate addition to Marvel’s trend of uninteresting villains. A lot of this can maybe be attributed to how arbitrary the rules of the universe seem to be constructed. This is a world full of sorcerors, sure, but the extent of their powers is never clearly defined. The advancement of the plot relies often on one-upmanship and lines like “they’re more powerful in this realm”, more reminiscent of Dragonball Z than Harry Potter. Hands are waved around and sparks fly for particular reason, and it’s more difficult to just go with than a giant green anger totem or a patroitic supersoldier for whatever reason. It’s just too silly, like something two kids would come up with bored in a backyard. Sometimes, this works; Strange’s cape has a personality akin to the magic carpet in Aladdin, and is appropriately endearing. Sometimes its just stupid. As a particularly egregious example, a lot is made of separating the body and soul as “astral projections”. While this leads to the aforementioned tender moment between Strange and the Ancient One, it also leads to an absurd ghost battle that serves no purpose other than making sure five minutes don’t go by without some action.
After the requisite training portion of the film, it really does kick into a non-stop action mode, in not necessarily the best way. After a great opening scene, it stops dead for about an hour, and then dives headfirst into the conclusion. By the time the movie arrives at the final showdown, it feels like the act-two break is still to come. The bloodless mysticism and senseless competence of Strange keep the action scenes from having real stakes, but Doctor Strange is creative enough with its special effects and design to make these scenes the far-and-away saving grace of the movie. Cities fold, floors and ceilings tile out into fractals, and the flow of time is allowed to play out differently in the background and foreground action. It’s nothing absolutely daring, and it wears it’s debt to The Matrix, Inception, and Cyriak (of Cows & Cows & Cows fame) on its sleeve, but it still has capacity to dazzle. I’m not sure if it’ll still dazzle on a small screen, but while the effects don’t make up for the lack of investment, they’re certainly the key selling point for seeing it on a big screen in 3D.
Doctor Strange (2016)
Dir. Scott Derrickson
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, and Tilda Swinton
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)