It is nothing less than a miracle that in eight short years, Marvel Studios has managed to bring us two waves of superhero epics. We’ve been through bombastic team-ups, imitate character studies, and more than one romp through space. The initial Avengers franchise has made a group of scrappy B-Listers iconic fixtures in pop culture. However, the tales of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Thor, and company are starting to reach their conclusions. This begs a key question. When our old friends fade into the twilight, who’s next? Never one to shy away from a challenge, Marvel has decided to not only evolve its universe but bend it over backward and turn it inside out with Doctor Strange.
The film introduces us to arrogant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). He’s a fast driving, music-loving, life-saving force of nature completely unwilling to listen to anybody but himself. However, all of this recklessness comes back to break him when his car cascades off of a hill in a catastrophic wreck that should reduce him to a pile of pulp. Nevertheless, he finds himself severally disabled and depressed, the steady hands he built his career on now limp and useless. Desperate for help, Strange turns to a group of eastern zealots who could potentially fix his affliction. Upon arriving, he is thrust into a mystical journey by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who proves to him in spectacular fashion that there are many universes beyond our own and that with practice, Strange can learn to traverse them. Time is of the essence, though, as her former pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) has made a deal with darker forces to send our world barreling into hell.
Every origin story is made or broken by the depth of the hero it is creating, and in Stephen Strange, we’re given quite a mixed bag. One one hand, he’s a bit of an iceberg for much of the first act. He’s so astonishingly arrogant and cagey that it’s hard to feel terribly sorry for him when tragedy strikes. On the other, once his journey does begin, and he learns to channel his intelligence and glib sense of humor into something beyond this world, he becomes rather compelling. Benedict Cumberbatch walks a very fine line in his relationship with the audience here. While he’s charismatic and crafty, Stephen’s cold demeanor never truly leaves him. A lesser actor could’ve easily pushed this character too far in either direction, but Cumberbatch is such a magnetic talent that he hits a sweet spot about midway through. We want to see what he’s going to do next, even if we don’t always love him.
Unfortunately, C. Robert Cargill’s screenplay is awfully concerned with a bunch of muddled and dull subplots that do not directly involve Stephen Strange. In fact, we very quickly gloss over Stephen’s training in a transition so jarring that it’s clear that several minutes were cut out. Instead of getting more compelling material out of our red caped friend’s evolving spatiality, a wasted supporting cast sucks up screen time as they flounder under the weight of exposition. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Baron Mordo is a complete bore. While the film tries to create a begrudging friendship between these two men with very different ideologies, the telegraphing for future stories is beyond obvious. It’s a melodramatic and broad turn from an actor capable of much better. Mikkelsen is stuck with yet another lame-brained Marvel villain. Sure, he gets a bit more backstory than the Ronans and Malekiths of the world, but it feels like an afterthought. Rachel McAdams feels trapped and uninvested as Strange’s generic love interest. Fortunately, Tilda Swinton is typically fantastic as the Ancient One. Unlike the other supporting characters, she’s not just there to explain but to enrich. She’s graceful and wise, but also not one to be trifled with. She and Cumberbatch have strong rapport together, their intellectual conversations making for some of the film’s strongest moments.
The whole affair starts to feel like a soapy vocabulary test after a while. There are only so many eyes of agamotto, sanctum sanctorums, and orbs of oglethorpe a guy can learn about before it all starts to blend together. Weirdly enough, it’s a film that both needs to streamline itself while adding an extra ten to fifteen minutes. If it had focused more on the man we came to see, the other elements could have acted as varnish to a compelling story instead of dragging things down. That said, there are many welcome notes of humor here, keeping things moving at a fairly nimble pace.
Fortunately, director Scott Derrickson has one major ace in the hole. The visual effects and the action scenes created therein are astounding. Superhero movies have gotten rather lazy with action as of late. Big things punch other big things, bing-bang-boom. Doctor Strange uses every single special effect as a paintbrush, shifting the geometry, color, and architecture of what we are looking at. As such, we get fights in which characters scale buildings that have been folded over, create shields of energy with their bare hands, and trade punches as time reverses behind them. Meanwhile, there is a chaotically beautiful sequence of Stephen flying through several levels of reality that just might set the new gold standard for trippy imagery in film. Derrickson might have a bit of a mess to sort through, but he and the artists behind these incredible moments single handily make the film worth seeing in the largest format possible.
Doctor Strange is often as messy and chaotic as the alternate dimensions its protagonist travels through. While Cumberbatch creates a very compelling if appropriately odd hero, the rest of the story simply isn’t strong enough to give him a truly powerful vehicle. However, the sheer ambition of the world building and the stunning effects work ultimately create an experience that makes the filmmakers feel like the true sorcerers. Next time, if Stephen Strange conjures a screenplay as magical as the world he lives in, perhaps he can headline one of Marvel’s supreme films.