Doctor Strange is the first Marvel movie since Iron Man 2 that doesn’t quite hit the spot. This is a pity, because of all the superheroes currently active in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the Sorcerer Supreme’s mythology offers the richest possibilities. This film however, largely sidesteps those possibilities to tell a fairly standard origin story.
The story is this. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a Gregory House type of character – a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon who can seemingly do no wrong until he meets an ironic Waterloo in the form of a car accident that leaves his nervous system shattered. His sense of identity in ruins, the doctor slips into a cycle of loathing (self and otherwise), that is only lifted when a caregiver tells him of a mysterious patient in the past who somehow gained full use of his body despite being completely paralyzed. This line of inquiry leads Strange to Nepal, to the doorstep of a mystical ashram of sorts called Kamar-Taj. There he meets an all-knowing guru called the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and her right-hand-man Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who tell him to forget everything he thinks he knows. He learns that his reality is one of many. There are seemingly infinite dimensions, such as the Mirror Dimension where you can practice all kinds of hocus-pocus without affecting the real world. All manner of mind-bending secrets are revealed to exist. Astral bodies. Portals that can transport you across space in a flash. Lockets that can turn back time. The impossibilities are endless.
Except that they’re really not. This wealth of mystical material ultimately forms the background for a fairly unimaginative plot. A former pupil of Kamar-Taj has been seduced by the dark side and has turned rogue. It is up to Strange to overcome this villain before he upends the universe. But first the good doctor must learn to overcome himself. That kind of thing. Predictable isn’t always bad – in fact, Marvel themselves have made a dozen delightful films before this that have all been predictable. However, I can’t but help feel that Doctor Strange would have worked far better as a television show. The story throws up so many tantalizing rabbit holes, it’s a shame we can’t go down them just because we have to cross the main road in two hours.
The trademark Marvel lightheartedness also seems a little out of place in this film. While Benedict Cumberbatch is predictably good at portraying Strange’s ego and intelligence, the Tony Stark-style quips roll awkwardly off his tongue. The Ejiofor-led supporting cast also doesn’t have much to do. Rachel McAdams is the latest A-lister after Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman to be wasted in the role of the Marvel hero’s pretty girlfriend. Tilda Swinton is the only cast member to produce something memorable out of her role as the androgynous Ancient One.
I may be making this look like a bad movie – it’s not. Marvel has too firm a grip on their game to produce an outright dud. There is plenty to like in Doctor Strange, most prominently the eye-popping visuals. The special effects here are the strongest Marvel has ever employed. The trailer promised a giant LSD trip, and that is what the best parts of the film feel like. (Not that I’d know anything about that) There is a spectacular space-bending chase sequence towards the end that M C Escher would have heartily approved of. Hey, if you believe films should be seen and not heard, Doctor Strange is an out-and-out success.