I appreciate Doctor Strange—it tries really hard to hit all the right notes; it works to make you smile. Director Scott Derrickson had a tough gig with this one, I suspect—trying to sell audiences on the philosophy and magic of Marvel’s laconic wizard in a post-Avengers, post-Guardians of the Galaxy world. Audiences have different, more demanding tastes now. They want the razzle and the dazzle, but they want to feel a pang in the heart and a tickle in the cerebellum too.
Marvel Studios know this – they’re been patently delivering empathetic, flawed lead characters since Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine tore onto the scene—and Robert Downey Jr. set the (red and) gold standard in Iron Man. A blend of witty banter, wry humour and tough-guy heart.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s doctor Stephen Strange aims for that same Venn diagram of charisma and arrogance – taking cues from Downey Jr. and maybe a fistful of Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord. However, while Downey Jr. and Pratt basically play themselves, albeit indulgently, we buy into their roles because they feel right for the part. Benedict Cumberbatch never convinces as a playboy doctor or a born-again magician. He looks the part, but it’s not a comfortable fit for him.
The story rushes through the preamble; a talented doctor with a checkered romantic history with fellow a doctor (Rachel McAdams) learns some humility after a debilitating car accident. He goes on a journey of self-discovery and potential physical redemption, crossing paths with a secret sect led by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who promises him the secrets of the universe (and the secrets of the human heart along the way cough gag). Swinton is clockwork reliable; she gets precious few lines – some of them only a single word in length – but her skill sends them home. She runs dramatic circles around the rest of the cast – particularly Cumberbatch, who just can’t seem to decide if he’s a breathless, put-upon Bruce Wayne or a smooth-operating Doctor House.
Anyway, Strange and his adversary (the always compelling Mads Mikkelsen) duke it out for the continued existence of the Earth in the face of a terrible (or terribly ambiguous) cosmic threat.
That’s the set-up, and that’s all well and fine. However, there’s no breathing room in the first act – rushing from exposition to obvious set-up and on and on, lines never lingering for impact. That lack of dramatic pacing presents a very noticeable problem in a film that demands the audience’s empathy. It doesn’t help that the dialogue vacillates wildly between clever philosophical aphorisms and lazy, cornball clunkers there to keep you from using your brain too hard. I mean, you wouldn’t want to walk out of a Marvel film with your firmly-held world-view rattled, after all. This is an action film. Sit back and keep quiet, you.
What really does work, though, is the magic. This is a film lavished with the kind of fractal eye-candy that made Chris Nolan’s Inception such a treat. In fact, there are some practical effect concepts and digital visual executions in here that I’ve frankly never seen before. Seriously. We live in cynical times when it comes to effects work. CG doesn’t move audiences as much as it once did. Even so, the infinite helixes and overlapping dimensions of folding cities, collapsing rooftops and floor tiles switched me right on. Weaving compelling action sequences into this? That’s the real magic here, folks.
Doctor Strange adds another hand of cards to the Marvel movie deck. It’s not as coherent and clever as Guardians of the Galaxy, nor a particularly compelling or well executed narrative. However, it achieves a flavor of its own; it feels like its own unique superheroic proposition, and that’s impressive in its own right. Frankly, I’d take this spiffy red cape over Clark Kent’s any day of the week.