Doctor Strange continues the emerging trend in comic/superhero films and TV of trying to bring the lesser-known characters to the wider audience. Following efforts like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, Doctor Strange is an expansionary effort that hopes to further test the waters of films starring those superheroes that a majority of people probably never heard of before seeing the trailer.
The problem this film has to overcome is that the genre seems to want to move past efforts like Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger, which had long, complex origin stories that did surprisingly good jobs of introducing even those better-known characters. Things need to move faster these days, both on screen and behind the camera, not least because there are twenty other movies on the schedule and we need to keep pace.
We get little more than the trailer reveals when it comes to Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and while the film fleshes things out a bit, it does so in ways that are so routine that it’s hard not to want to fast-forward. There are a few clever moments that you’d miss, and certainly a lot of special effects, but the first 30 minutes of the film might as well be a montage scene.
Strange, having his magnificent career as a surgeon cut short by a car accident which damaged his hands beyond the hope of returning to the operating table, seeks out new possibilities, which leads him to Kathmandu, and a mystic healer known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).
After a few out-of-body experiences and much study, Strange begins to master the way of spells and sorcery, and learns that the multi-verse is in danger from an indescribable entity from the dark plane who is after taking over all the universes that exist.
As Strange trains to hone his skills, at times by being thrown into the deep end to sink or swim, it becomes clear that there is a threat a little closer to home. Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is a former student of The Ancient One, who ultimately left to, for reasons that are unclear and senseless, help the dark power take over the world… and everything else.
The film oddly overburdens us with some aspects while taking the laziest of routes through other parts of the effort. The audience frequently finds itself looking for character development, only to find the film simply offering a quick, “I mean, you get it.” The Ancient One needs no work as a character, because you know how elder sages work. Kaecilius, who isn’t developed any less than any other Marvel villain, is meant to be wrapped up by a quick description – he was a student of the good, but he went over to the dark side. What more could you need?
Through it all, it’s lucky that the film has Cumberbatch leading things, because you can’t help following him. Even when the movie opens with him overworking his arrogant bastard role, you don’t quite believe it, and are all too willing to play along when the film flips a switch and tells you that he has seen the error of his ways.
That leads you into the action, much of which is truly mind-blowing, cleverly delivered, and the kind of pure fun that Marvel has mastered over the last decade. In this case, there is so much effort slogging through the quagmire of lazy, uninspired plot development, that’s you don’t enter the action with any ability to care about it. It looks good, but the whole thing serves a rollercoaster, both in fun and storytelling ability. The scenes that make you sit up, especially one that finds Strange returning to his on-again-off-again girlfriend (Rachel McAdams), mostly serve to heighten your disappointment in everything else that’s going on.
Worst, perhaps, in terms of the speed at which everything is delivered and the flyby characters, is that the plot here is an effort to defeat, basically, the worst “bad guy” that it is possible for there to be. It may play out in a pretty genius way, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is all too grandiose to lay out in a film. It’s like Harry Potter killing off Voldemort by the midpoint of the first book, and going on to bring an end to evil itself. Doctor Strange tells you that there are going to be other villains coming now, but you have to laugh.
It’s hard to know who to blame for the film’s shortcoming, moreso when you consider the Marvel behemoth, but it feels like Director/co-writer Scott Derrickson is a sensible choice. Director of few titles, notably the fantastically goofy The Day the Earth Stood Still, as well as Sinister, and Deliver Us from Evil, Derrickson’s horror sensibilities fit the mold we’re in here. If nothing else, the “everything’s at stake,” and, “the characters don’t matter a lot,” staples of horror clearly influence the experience.
There is a lot of fun to be had here, but the experiment with a different kind of comic story doesn’t land well. The aim at more depth misses, which only means that we’re wasting a lot of time, and aren’t in the right realm to make it up with a lot of laughs.