Doctor Strange – the 14th entry in Marvel’s ongoing Cinematic Universe – is both one of their most inventive and one of their most safe films. Directed by Sinister helmer Scott Derrickson, the film introduces magic to this universe and does so in spectacular fashion, with visuals that are unlike anything else we’ve ever seen in this universe. Everything else on show here, however, is well-worn territory for Marvel.
Much like Iron Man’s Tony Stark, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is as brilliant as he is arrogant, but when he’s hit with adversity, he must come to accept that there are bigger and more important things than his ego. Strange has a reputation as one of the world’s greatest surgeons, but he is abrasive and full of his own importance, with that rep proving more important to him than his patients. All of that comes to a screeching halt when a car crash leaves him with nerve damage in both hands, leaving Strange bitter, spiteful and desperate to find a way to get his hands back.
After exhausting all the possibilities of Western medicine, Strange hears of a place in Kathmandu where seemingly any physical ailment can be cured. What he finds is not a doctor but a powerful sorcerer named the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who introduces him to the astral plane and alternate dimensions and the multiverse and all kinds of exposition. The Ancient One and her disciples – including Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong) – practice the mystic arts, possessing the ability to hop between dimensions and manipulate the laws of space and time. They use these abilities to battle threats to our dimension, including Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former disciple who wants a piece of the immortality pie for himself. In order to stop Kaecilius and his zealots wreaking havoc on our dimension, Strange must abandon his ego and sacrifice his own desires for the greater good.
For anyone already initiated in the MCU, this story is standard stuff: privileged egomaniac learns through adversity to put others ahead of himself. All the other tropes are present and correct too: Ejiofor is largely wasted in a sidekick role though at least he will be back in a bigger role at a later date. This is likely not the case for Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer, the latest one-dimensional love interest whose role is so thin, it makes Natalie Portman’s Thor character look like Lady Macbeth by comparison. It almost goes without saying at this point that the villain is another in a long line of Marvel duds. Mikkelsen is solid, of course, but Kaecilius is too thinly drawn to leave any kind of lasting impression. There’s something of a compelling conflict in there, with Kaecilius driven by the feeling that the supposedly good Ancient One is hoarding all of the power for herself, but it’s never explored to its fullest potential.
What does mark Doctor Strange apart from its Marvel stablemates however is its introduction of mysticism and the eye-popping, psychedelic visuals that go along with it. There’s a 2001-esque sequence that is visually the most ambitious thing we’ve seen in the MCU, as Strange’s astral form is sent on a journey through countless dimensions. Fight scenes take place across different dimensions, with the surroundings bending and folding and twisting on each other, like Inception’s famous folding Paris scene, though here it’s turned up to mind-bending eleven. Though some of the space sequences call to mind the far-from-beloved Green Lantern, on the whole this is a beautiful film that employs effects and visuals like we’ve never seen in a superhero film and really make this stand out from the rest of the MCU.
While the visuals alone make Doctor Strange worth seeing – it looks that amazing – it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is minor Marvel. It goes through the motions in every way possible; even the snappy dialogue – a crucial part of what makes Marvel’s output so enjoyable – just feels rote, with most of the jokes landing with a thud. Part of that is down to Cumberbatch who, while a fine actor, lacks the charisma or comedic chops to pull off the witty banter and throwaway lines the way someone like Robert Downey Jr, Paul Rudd or Chris Pratt can. It’s also down to a script that is tasked with introducing new worlds and new possibilities, so is understandably weighed down with exposition. Now that’s out the way, the table is set for a sequel that can flesh out the characters and explore the interesting concepts introduced here in a fuller way.