Doctor Strange Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenwriter: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Rated PG-13 | 115 Minutes
Release Date: November 4, 2016
“Forget everything that you think you know…”
The 14th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange deals with alternate dimensions, astral projection, and mind-bending mysticism, exploring an entirely new realm of storytelling for Marvel Studios. Co-written and directed by Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister), the film follows world-famous neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Sherlock‘s Benedict Cumberbatch) whose life changes forever after a car accident robs him of the use of his hands.
When Western medicine fails the brilliant but arrogant doctor, Strange travels to the Far East in search of healing at a mysterious enclave known as Kamar-Taj. There he meets Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave), a member of the Masters of Mystic Arts who once followed the same path. Now Mordo serves The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive), a powerful sorcerer who has safeguarded the secrets of the Mystic Arts for centuries. As her latest pupil, Strange will have to unlearn what he has learned and free his mind to find his inner strength and heal his broken body.
Being a skeptic and a materialist, Strange is resistant to the notion of magic, but after exploring Kamar-Taj’s vast library of mystical tomes, he discovers that there is more to the world than he thought. Armed with eldritch light and enchanted amulets, Strange and his fellow sorcerers must protect the multi-verse from Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a zealot who betrayed The Ancient One to serve Dormammu, ruler of the Dark Dimension, who is bent on destroying our reality.
Doctor Strange is a cinematic mind-trip with bold, hallucinogenic imagery and exciting, even profound, action sequences. As a narrative, however, it isn’t entirely successful. The script by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill (Sinister) is your standard superhero origin story, a hodgepodge of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, in which a Genius Billionaire Playboy Philanthropist™ is ripped from his life of privilege, grows a Scraggly Pilgrimage Beard™, and travels to exotic destinations in search of a greater purpose.
As Strange, Cumberbatch embodies the same Arrogant Genius™ he’s known for playing in BBC’s Sherlock and The Imitation Game, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Surrounded by an impressive ensemble, Cumberbatch is the weak link; a typecast actor playing a cardboard cutout that — at best — feels like an amalgam of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne and at worst like Sherlock Goes to Hogwarts.
Luckily, Cumberbatch’s middling performance is elevated by the always brilliant Tilda Swinton, who makes The Ancient One feel like a fresh, new character worth investing in, instead of the mystical mishmash of Ra’s al Ghul and Yoda she appears to be on paper. Ejiofor’s Mordo brings a kind of Buddhist energy to the piece, a sense of peace and enlightenment that offers much-needed balance to Strange’s self-involved madness. He’s the Watson to Cumberbatch’s Holmes, and I’ll be interested to see how his character progresses in subsequent Marvel outings.
Benedict Wong (The Martian) is great as the no-nonsense Wong, keeper of Kamar-Taj’s vast library, while Rachel McAdams is wasted in her limited role. As Doctor Christine Palmer, McAdams is a skilled surgeon saddled with being Strange’s love interest – she’s Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster in scrubs, essentially. Speaking of Thor, Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is about as memorable as Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith in Thor: The Dark World. He’s the villainous equivalent of a white girl in yoga pants, UGG® boots, and a North Face® jacket, with a Starbucks® Pumpkin Spice Latte® in her hand – tragically basic.
There are moments of genuine awe in Doctor Strange, and I love the incredibly weird and mysterious world Derrickson has created here. From Astral Planes and Mirror Dimensions to a fractured Spacetime Continuum, there are some gnarly sights to behold – the visual vocabulary is pulling from Steve Ditko’s psychedelic comic panels, as well as The Matrix, Inception, and Miyazaki’s animated works. These tremendous visuals and jaw-dropping effects, coupled with Cumberbatch’s underwhelming lead performance and a by-the-numbers script, create a movie that is equal parts fantastic and frustrating.
Another issue is the film’s tone, which tries too hard to shoehorn in Marvel’s signature brand of humor and whimsy into a story that doesn’t need it. Most of the jokes miss the mark, while other gags are so jarring that they water down the potency of the trippy, cerebral experience Derrickson has conjured. One scene in particular, in which Strange’s Cloak of Levitation comes to life and fights Kaecilius’ followers by wrapping them up and slamming them to-and-fro, is a little too cutesy, even for Marvel. I have to wonder if all the forced humor is a result of Marvel hiring Community creator Dan Harmon to pen new pages for reshoots. If so, this is yet another instance in which studio tampering has hurt a movie instead of helping it.
Overall, Doctor Strange is a totally adequate live-action adaptation of Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme. I’m happy to see big-budget entertainment as weird and far-out as this in multiplexes, even if I’m left wanting more from the story and its characters. Let’s face it: these origin stories exist solely to introduce audiences to fringe characters that will factor into future team-up movies. Marvel, like its audience, recognizes that the fun of this shared universe experiment is in watching iconic heroes and villains cross-pollinate and play off each other.
Whether it’s in Thor: Ragnarok or Avengers: Infinity War, I look forward to seeing how Strange interacts with characters like Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, and Loki, and how his world of magic and mysticism connects to Asgard and the worlds glimpsed in Guardians of the Galaxy. I only hope that the next time we see Strange, the character comes to life with a dynamic performance and a script that challenges Cumberbatch to be more than just New Age Tony Stark.