With Doctor Strange, Marvel pries open a doorway to a new realm, one filled with magic and mysticism, dark dimensions and malevolent deities. Filled with heady three-dimensional visuals and eye-bulging psychedelic set pieces, Doctor Strange fulfills the promise of its inspired marketing push. That is, it is as close as Marvel has come to being Inception on crack. And let me assure you, that is a good thing. Led by a game Benedict Cumberbatch playing on type as a smarmy elite member of the intelligentsia, Doctor Strange nonetheless suffers the Marvel formula, the “portal problem” and yet another utterly disposable single serving villain.
Before coming to understand the world of infinity stones and mirror dimensions, Doctor Stephen Strange is a celebrated neurosurgeon. Arrogant and brash, Strange fits right in with Marvel’s slate of heroes who must find humility and overcome their super-charged ego in order to take on the mantle of “hero”. Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man and Peter Quill all faced similar obstacles which may explain why director Scott Derrickson hurries these rather rote formula elements along as much as possible to get to the LSD-inspired trips down astral plane lane. And hurry he does. At 115 minutes, Doctor Strange clips along at a pace that halts for none, leaving certain intriguing elements unexplored and rightly skating over boring bits like the Flash post-Redbull.
Speaking of speed… When a distracted Strange wrecks his Lamborghini Huracan while rushing over a mountain pass, he seeks out any means necessary to heal his battered hands so that he may continue his life’s work. Here we see a side to Strange that has eluded much of Marvel’s ilk: he’s a mean sonofabitch. This is reflected in his relationship to former lover Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) who he verbally rebukes, despite her best efforts to heal his soul, if only because his body seems beyond saving.
By and large, Marvel has struggled with love interests and villains both and Doctor Strange does a commendable job at flipping the former on its head by positioning Palmer as an ex from the get-go. McAdams isn’t necessarily given much to do – they rarely are – and this subversion of the norm doesn’t really end up going anywhere novel, but it is a nice fleeting attempt at freshness in a genre that’s all about quick pickling.
When Strange comes to Nepal to seek out the healing powers of one known only as The Ancient One (a freshly shorn Tilda Swinton), he realizes that there is more to the world than meets the eye. Here, Derrickson lets loose. Doctor Strange’s visual palette swallows itself as Swinton’s cryptic instructor launches Strange into a kaleidoscopic spray of dimensions. The imagery is fractal-based and mind-gnawing. Hands emerge from hands emerge from hands. It’s a 100 million dollar salvia trip plopped on the big screen. In 3D IMAX, that single pants-shittingly good earns the ticket price alone.
That’s because Doctor Strange succeeds most when it’s being, well, strange. The innovation of folding matter upon itself, a power that villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen emoting through Lite-Brite eyes) wields like an army of special effects animators, makes for some grossly arresting action cinema. When Strange identifies his “relic”, an object imbued with special powers that “chooses” its master, the oddities continue. Strange’s object is a levitation cape who bears similar animated qualities to Aladdin’s Carpet. It has a will of its own, bitch slapping baddies trying to take down its wearer and the “character” is used as effective comic relief.
Where Strange trips up is its fierce adhere to Marvel formula. Scientific in terms of structure and beats, the mathematical hodgepodge of character development, action beats, witty humor and third act boss battle is overbearingly present. Predictable and lacking in surprises, Doctor Strange’s act structure is as cookie cutter routine as a Famous Amos treat and just as stale. A fact made all the more disappointing by Strange’s admirable desire to be different and break from the mold. Those pesky post-scene credits just add to the minus column, throwing Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s character Karl Mordo for a hell of a lame-brained loop in the process.
Marvel’s last effort, Captain America: Civil War, rose above the ranks due in large part to its clever dismissal of studio customs. That is, it pivoted away from the humdrum third act beat down to find something much more personal and intimate. Doctor Strange, origin story though it may be, has not learned the lessons imparted from Civil War’s narrative success. So we get a silly talking head named Dormammu, who resembles in no small part Star Fox’s Andross, and he wants to swallow up the entire multiverse cuz them be the highest stakes possible. In a multiplex hoarded with world destroying antics, less is almost always more and it doesn’t take a genius to figure that one out. Now if only we could cast some spell upon Kevin Feige to get that point across…
CONCLUSION: ‘Doctor Strange’ sparkles with inebriating visual pop but suffers the issues common to Marvel formula: a weak villain, over-reliance on ill-fitting witticisms and a third act universe-aggressive threat complete with an inter-dimensional portal. Benedict Cumberbatch’s mastery of megalomaniacal peculiarities prove a fine match for Strange’s odd skill set though and it’ll be interesting to see how his character fits in with the rest of the Avengers when the time comes.