Doctor Strange is somehow simultaneously unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and exactly the same as countless movies I’ve already seen. At times, it feels like one of the finest (or at least boldest) films Marvel Studios has ever made, yet at other times it’s as paint by numbers and clunky as anything Marvel has ever released. The magic on display, brought to life by so, so many digital artists, is captivating, yet not uniformly spell-binding. The end credits promise Doctor Strange will return, which warrants a huzzah because who doesn’t love seeing Benedict Cumberbatch in things. However, it’s a tepid “huzzah’ because the character who, fairly or not, has often been written off in the comics as “Tony Stark With Magic” comes off in his first big budget film as, well, a less funny, less interesting “Tony Stark With Magic.”
Or maybe this is just me hitting comic book movie fatigue, specifically origin story fatigue. I honestly don’t know for sure because I feel as if I should have liked this movie more than I did.
The basic plot hews pretty closely to the standard character biography you see in the first paragraph on the first page of most any Doctor Strange comic book, the below summation coming from 2016’s Doctor Strange #5:
Stephen Strange was a preeminent surgeon until a car accident damaged the nerves in his hands. His ego drove him to scour the globe for a miracle cure but instead he found a mysterious wizard called the Ancient One who taught him magic and that there are things in this world bigger than himself. These lessons led Stephen to become the Sorcerer Supreme, Earth’s first defense against all manner of magical arts. His patients call him…DOCTOR STRANGE
Tack on “and he had a quasi-girlfriend (Rachel McAdams) he pushed away after his accident” as well as “and he made a couple of friends-turned-allies (Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor) while studying under the Ancient One” in addition to “and his first act as Sorcerer Supreme was to try and prevent a crazy-eyed dude (Mads Mikkelsen) from ending the world for, um, reasons” and there’s your movie.
To pull all of this off, director Scott Derickson (so good behind Sinister, less so with Deliver Us From Evil) put together one of the most acclaimed, Oscar-nominated casts in comic book history. Such a shame then that none of the characters are actually worthy of these actors.
Benedict Cumberbatch, disappointingly stripped of his natural British accent to play the New York-based lead character, effortlessly steps into Strange’s arrogant shoes (can shoes be arrogant? his probably could) and is sufficiently humbled, learning an all-too-familiar lesson about not being so selfish. This arc is so generic by now it almost seems beneath Cumberbatch. On top of that, the film is in such a hurry to not only rush through Strange’s pre-magic life but also his actual magic training that it’s easy to lose track of him as a character and instead shift your attention toward the slightly more intriguing (or at least more mysterious) figures around him.
Speaking of which, Swinton, whose casting as The Ancient One was so controversial since the character is typically portrayed as an elderly Asian man, largely gets by on “She’s Tilda Swinton, and she’s awesome” quirks until the script finally gives her more to work with than the same old all-knowing mentor figure tropes previously seen in countless martial arts movies. McAdams is more than capable of meeting the script’s challenge to look awfully sad early on and then register her character’s comedic surprise when Strange, newly all wizarded up, suddenly stumbles back into her life. Ejiofor and Wong are kind of just there, the former all vague references to a troubled past which will only be revealed in detail in the sequel and the latter a comic relief figure who is not at all amused by Strange’s quips but will probably be a fun sidekick in the sequel.
Similarly, Hannibal‘s Mads Mikkelsen, who previously passed on the chance to play the villain in Thor: The Dark World, fails to make any real lasting impression as a former Ancient One pupil who now seeks to unlock eternal life while also casting doubt on the blind trust everyone else places in The Ancient One. His inevitable “here’s why I am doing all of this” speech admirably attempts to not only paint him in a more sympathetic light but also an understandable one, glimpsing the logic behind his plan and realizing it’s not that crazy. That’s the intent, at least. In execution, though, all I really heard was a lesser version of Malcolm McDowell’s “time is the fire in which we burn” Star Trek: Generations speech with a little bit of “we are not so different, you and I” thrown in.
Shockingly then, the most interesting or at least most entertaining character in the film is Doctor Strange’s oddly sentient cloak which attaches itself to the would-be Sorceror Supreme halfway through and saves his life on more than one occasion. Think of it is a funnier, slightly more independent version of Thor’s hammer. Vulture summed it up best:
Let me tell you, this cloak has real personality. It’s like Aladdin’s adorably wiggly flying carpet, but so much hornier. Eventually, the cloak pulls an Anderson Cooper and breaks free of its glass closet, making a beeline for Strange and proving to be a boon in the ensuing battle. It helpfully tugs its owner over to a useful weapon, and later, mauls a hunky bad guy for way, way too long. Seriously. Strange leaves the Sanctum, heads to the other side of the planet, and returns to Greenwich Village a fair bit later, and this cloak is still getting frisky with Mads Mikkelsen’s dashing henchman. It’s the handsiest thing with no hands I’ve ever seen.
And while it may have less to do as the film goes on, when the cloak does choose to interject, it steals the scene while doing so. One of the biggest laughs in the movie comes when Strange’s face is streaked with blood, tears, and sweat, and the cloak sort of softly dabs at the angular planes of Cumberbatch’s face, trying to clean him up.
Of course, that’s exactly the kind of crowd-pleasing, tension-relieving levity we’ve come to expect from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, other than the cloak as well as a particularly inspired bit involving surgery consultation via astral projection the humor in Doctor Strange feels a tad more forced than usual for a Marvel movie, coming off like the work of a sleep-deprived script doctor punching up the dialogue with tired bits like “There’s a character who only goes by one name? Oh, then we clearly have to joke about one name celebrities (e.g., Beyonce, Bono)!” or Vaudevillian routines in which other characters mistakenly believe Doctor is not a title but instead Doctor Strange’s actual first name. These aren’t necessarily bad jokes; they just don’t always feel organic to the film.
The true star of the show, then, is neither the characters nor the jokes but the special effects, which bend cityscapes in such a way you feel like you’re watching a live-action M.C. Esher painting or simply Inception on crack:
However, it doesn’t take long before all of the city folding somewhat blends together, or proves so complicated you don’t even know where to focus your eye. Beyond that, the exact mechanism for all of this reality bending, always initiated by some wizard waving their arms, is remarkably ill-defined since the magic in the film is both overly dense and stunningly simple, as if Robin from Teen Titans Go! took a quick pass on the script:
By now we’re all plenty familiar with the tropes, jokes and story beats inherent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After all, 13 movies should be more than enough to establish a recognizable brand, and Doctor Strange, lucky number 14, doesn’t do nearly as much as you might expect to deviate from that brand. Sure, this is the movie which introduces magic into the MCU, and sports literal world-bending action sequences which are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before outside of Inception, establishing Doctor Strange as a front-runner for this year’s Best Visual Effects Oscar. They even throw in a bit of temporal manipulation along the way for good measure, sort of an added bonus in the parade of moments which seem to be screaming, “You haven’t seen that in one of our movies before, have you?” However, if you strip all of that away you have a whole lot of familiar Marvel-branded entertainment, except this time the jokes aren’t quite as funny, the characters aren’t as memorable and the “I can’t wait to see the sequel” factor isn’t nearly as high.
But I might have simply reached my limit with comic book movies this year.