Film Review: Doctor Strange

Stunning visuals go a long way towards enlivening this largely unexceptional superhero origin story.
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From Iron Man on through last year’s Ant-Man, Marvel Studios has the superhero origin story down cold... but mixing the formula up a bit would have benefited their latest outing, about neurosurgeon-turned-sorcerer Stephen Strange. By no means a cinematic misfire like Iron Man 2 or the overstuffed, messy Avengers: Age of Ultron, Doctor Strange still lands solidly in the middle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe pack. With Marvel consistently pumping out two new movies a year—Captain America: Civil War hit six months ago, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens six months from now—this latest caper will likely fade into the background of audiences’ memories as the franchise soldiers forward.

Doctor Strange’s main problem has to do with its main character, a rich, brilliant and sarcastic scientist whose arrogance keeps him from connecting with people in any meaningful way. A personal tragedy befalls him, which leads him down the path of superherodom; eventually, he has to decide whether he’s willing to sacrifice himself for the little people he’s up to this point viewed mostly with disdain. Oh, and he’s also brunette and has a goatee.

No, this isn’t Iron Man, even though... actually, yeah, it’s basically Iron Man. Tony Stark and his red and gold suits may belong to the realm of technology, while Stephen Strange takes his power from the realm of the mystical—taught the way of magic by the Ancient One, a warrior monk ably played by Tilda Swinton—but they are, in essence, the same character. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing—the main characters in Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy also adhere to the same basic “arrogant man learns to not be such a jerk” template—except Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t have the charm to pull it off.

You like Iron Man, even though he’s objectively a bit of an ass, because Robert Downey, Jr. has such a charismatic presence. Cumberbatch is too staid, too self-possessed; the too-small number of jokes he has (Doctor Strange is among the least funny of the MCU’s movies, to its detriment) frequently don’t land. Simply put, Doctor Strange represents a rare casting misstep for Marvel, behind only the choice of Ed Norton as Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk. (He was replaced by Mark Ruffalo for The Avengers and subsequent films.)

If the main character and the plot land just on the wrong side of too generic (a fault that also applies to the film’s villain, though to say more would venture into the land of spoilers), director/co-writer Scott Derrickson (Sinister) has still crafted a film that’s enjoyable enough to watch. Doctor Strange assembles a Marvel-typical roster of ultra-talented supporting players, here including Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong as fellow magical acolytes of Strange’s, and Mads Mikkelsen as a convincingly intimidating religious-zealot baddie. On the non-magical side of things, Rachel McAdams and Michael Stuhlbarg play hospital colleagues (and, in McAdams’ case, a former lover) of Strange’s. Both are underused.

Doctor Strange’s main strength is its mind-bending visuals, which see Cumberbatch, Swinton, Ejiofor and Mikkelsen battling across a trippy visual landscape that’s like the city-bending scene from Inception pumped up to 11. This and certain other set-pieces have in abundance the inventiveness that most of the rest of the film lacks, making Doctor Strange for all its shortcomings a worthwhile entry into the Marvel family and one of the most technically innovative actioners of the year.

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