Genre: Superhero Running Time: 1 hr. 55 min.
Release Date: November 4th, 2016 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Scott Derrickson Actors: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Zara Phythian, Katrina Durden
or each new superhero that receives the big screen treatment, Marvel attempts to infuse them with a specific ability or style that sets them apart from the rest. Ant-Man drastically changes size to gain an advantage over his adversaries, thereby setting the stage for clever action sequences. The Guardians of the Galaxy opt for sass, sarcasm, and ’70s songs to stand out. Even Deadpool manages to make an impression with his incessant, foul-mouthed one-liners and irreverent attitude when superpowers aren’t inventive enough. Doctor Strange is the first in a string of arrivals that doesn’t excite as effectively with his brand of interdimensional proficiency. The special effects surrounding such an expertise never falter as they spew forth all manner of kaleidoscopic transformations and crackling orbs of luminescence, but the underlying concept of heroes wielding magic spells arrives too late and too unspectacularly in a genre already overflowing with wizards from Hogwarts, Jedi mind tricks, and Asgardian gods.
Self-centered, fame-chasing neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) revels in his medical successes, callously casting aside those who love him – including ER doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). When a brutal car accident leaves Strange’s hands badly mangled, his career is ruined. Unwilling to accept this cruel fate, the doctor first turns to modern medicine, then to experimental procedures, and finally to the spiritual – eventually traveling to Nepal to seek out the “Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton), a mystical shaman adept in harnessing energy from other dimensions. Initially reluctant to believe in skills unsupported by science, Strange soon begins studying the supernatural arts under the Ancient One’s tutelage and trains alongside her advanced pupil Master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). When his thirst for knowledge leads him to ever more dangerous spells and the Ancient One’s vengeful former disciple Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), Strange is swept up in a cosmic battle to defend against a threat of unfathomable magnitude.
“Doctor Strange” accomplishes the same feats that many Marvel films do. The action is vivid and grandiose, the acting is confident, and the peppered moments of humor result in the desired break from tension. But all the major pitfalls of previous superhero films also remain, and some are compounded further. There’s no real sense of story progression, the villains are uninspired, and the explanation of abilities is glaringly absent. In “Doctor Strange,” the characters all use sorcery, an aptitude undefined and without limitation. Any predicament encountered can be evaded by simply conjuring a stronger spell or tampering with perceived reality. When teachers entertain such mumbo jumbo as astral projections, mirror dimensions, and infinite universes, one gets the impression that new intangible things are being invented just so they can then be manipulated in prismatic CG glory. And with immeasurable power comes no real sense of danger as a handy portal or time-altering talisman is always within reach.
Perhaps all the storytelling shortcomings and unexplained phenomena could be overlooked more easily with compelling characters and potent emotional exchanges. Or even a villain that offers more than moody observations on the futility of resistance (his motivations comparatively mimic those found in countless other comic book foes). “Doctor Strange” offers little of the former and none of the latter. The protagonist is an arrogant, self-absorbed genius with significant talent who loses everything in a tragedy that forces him to re-examine his life and begin working for the greater good. Sound like a certain pointy-eared caped crusader or a shiny red iron-armored industrialist?
“Forget everything you think you know,” suggests Mordo, as if Strange were about to enter the Matrix. A cliched command foreshadows early on that what follows is a rehashed – although extravagantly visualized – consolidation of elements from previous comic book and sci-fi movie creations. Borrowing from other entities generally isn’t such a hindrance, especially considering the Marvel universe is designed so that its inhabitants can jump between worlds. But when these superheroes are defending the Earth from an intergalactic planet-devouring space monster for the third or fourth time, any sense of wonder is all but lost.
It’s also difficult to get around the silliness of the good doctor’s surname, but at least there’s plenty of humor to mitigate the attention on such components. However, all the comedy in the world can’t gloss over the stolen ideas from “Inception” and every prior Marvel and DC holding, which are in full force here – in the form of mindless magical stuff, heavily augmented by colorful computer graphics. The multiverse of “Doctor Strange” isn’t nearly as cohesive as the Matrix or any other sci-fi extravaganza of the last few decades, relying instead on jargon (astral dimensions, manipulating the space-time continuum, and all manner of forbidden rituals), the spontaneous conjuring of neon armaments, or ludicrous excuses – such as when the Sorceress Supreme explains to her student that not everything has to make sense.
“Some things just can’t be fixed.” As it turns out, when poorly defined, all-powerful sorcery is the skill of a superhero, everything can be fixed. So it doesn’t matter that Strange is irredeemable, or that Christine is quite accepting of a nonchalant apology fused with distracting, interdimensional combat. Nothing Stephen does has any consequence, nor is he ever in any real danger – especially since solutions to typically fatal predicaments can be summoned with a bit of concentration and a magic-imbued tool. At least it’s amusing that superheroes need brain surgeons from time to time, though it’s certainly not a convincing dilemma. With its unrelenting nonsense (in place of a story), lifeless characters, and meaningless clashes across all sorts of arbitrary, otherworldly planes, “Doctor Strange” is at the very bottom of Marvel’s superhero collection.
– The Massie Twins