I don’t think I’ve seen a film so desperate to be unique while ending up so cookie cutter…
“Doctor Strange” is the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and stars Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role as a neurosurgeon that suffers a career-ending injury and sets out to learn magic to try and heal himself. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen and Tilda Swinton also star as Scott Derrickson directs and co-writes.
This year has been one of the most disappointing in the history of mainstream cinema, and superhero films have followed suit. “Batman v Superman” and “Captain America: Civil War” both promised epic showdowns between famed heroes and both were anticlimactic, while “X-Men: Apocalypse” is one of the worst films of the year. “Doctor Strange” isn’t a hugely well-known property but when the Marvel tag is slapped on anything people have certain expectations and will show up in droves to the box office. “Strange” definitely is an odd and different film, and features a cast of talented people, but it is so mundane and lazy in its execution that colorful and trippy visuals aren’t enough to distract all but the least-demanding filmgoer.
We’ll start with the man on all the posters, Benedict Cumberbatch. Coming off an Oscar nominated performance in “The Imitation Game” and another Emmy-nod for “Sherlock,” Cumberbatch is a hot commodity and so it makes sense he was the next person to be tapped to head a Marvel film. Cumberbatch doesn’t go far out his comfort zone, as his Stephen Strange is a narcissistic, dryly sarcastic man who thinks he knows best and probably does, just like Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing and Sherlock Holmes.
The problem with the character is we don’t know much about him before he gets into his accident and begins his magical quest. We get one scene of him performing surgery to music and then the next he is in a car accident, so unlike “Iron Man” where we get to know Tony Stark as a man before he becomes a hero, we pretty much only know Strange as a sorcerer. And a note on that accident scene: it is so hilariously over the top, and features so many flips and spins that only result in nerve damaged hands and a few bruises elsewhere, that in a film with dimension-bending and spell casting, that car accident is the thing that requires the most suspension of disbelief.
The rest of the cast is fine enough, although Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams (ugh, so good to say that) is the only one who looks like she’s actually enjoying herself. Mads Mikkelsen is yet another Marvel bad guy who is disposable and used simply as a plot device, and we know nothing about him as a person or what is truly motivating him, outside what exposition dialogue is fed to Strange from other characters.
The film’s stakes just don’t feel earned. We are told that Mikkelsen and his followers want to use a stolen page from an ancient book to have a big bad guy (who turns out to be an evil, world-devouring cloud a la “Green Lantern,” “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” and a half-dozen other films) do something evil. It’s really never made clear and we don’t meet the Cloud until the final 15 minutes.
It’s not just the car crash and the villains that are dumb; the writing is lazy and doesn’t do anything to make us get invested. Strange is struggling to learn his powers? Have him become a master in the very next scene with only the vaguest of explanations. A character may or may not be summoning powers from the dark side? Let’s not make it affect the plot and tie up their story in the very next scene. There are a lot of examples of faux conflicts that are quickly resolved, and it just becomes annoying after a while.
The visions and spell scenes certainly are colorful and a fun, trippy LSD experience, but they’re just an attempt to distract you from the fact nothing is truly going on in the plot. Also there are numerous sequences that feature rooms and entire cities spinning and turning on their axis, and while they begin fun they turn into a convoluted and mind-numbing mess.
“Doctor Strange” is better than Marvel’s last November release, “Thor: The Dark World,” but its all-star cast and bright visuals can’t save it from muddled direction and lazy writing. If you are one of the people who prefer “Ant-Man” to “Age of Ultron” and “Civil War” to “Winter Soldier” (to say you like the easy, breezy Marvel films over the more ambitious ones) then you may get more out of this than me. But I just never bought into what the film was selling, and it is an unfortunately fitting end to what has been a disappointing year of superhero films.
Critics Rating: 5/10