Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a top neurosurgeon. We learn this early in Marvel’s Doctor Strange because it opens with an operating table sequence showing us just how good he is at his job. Strange is also an egomaniac, so he’s cruising for a bruising from the universe. We have to know he’s the best, and a prick, because then we can’t buy into his fall from grace moments later where he wrecks his car and is left with irreparable damage to the nerves in his hands, thus ending his medical career.
Marvel loves to humble their narcissistic high fliers because they can use their redemption as pathways to heroics, and in the case of Doctor Strange, the frequent flier miles lead to Nepal where Strange meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who teaches sorcery; a fancy way of voguing to open portals, create weapons and use astral projection.
Surprise, surprise, Strange is an outstanding student, in fact, he’s the one they need, a great white hope to master the mystical arts to stop another bland Marvel bad guy (Mads Mikkelsen) trying to summon a great evil on the grounds of: just because. Strange’s nemesis might as well use ‘the dog ate my homework’ excuse to explain his actions so he can get back to being an agitation – this is the current state of Marvel’s ongoing problem with villains.
Doctor Strange has Marvel’s formula of amusing mediocrity perfected. From the obvious setup, to the collapse and then rise; it’s has a bland mindset for the narrative crafted by co-writer and director, Scott Derrickson, and co-writers Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill, yet it’s wrapped in visual splendor.
Doctor Strange gets wonderfully weird when it steps out into multiple universes, astral plains and different states of mind and time. Derrickson crafts inventive fight sequences and trippy montages that feel like they would sync perfectly with a Pink Floyd album. The visualisation of the sorcery is like a welder carving glyphs into thin air and it comes with the joy conjured from an 8-year-old kid blasting invisible fireballs from their hands in their backyard (yes, this was once me). In bursts, it’s a mighty acid trip on a blockbuster budget but the formulaic elements are enough to put a harsh on your buzz.
Sadly, Rachel McAdams gets put in the romantic interest side-cart specially reserved for a majority of female characters in Marvel movies. The plot keeps bouncing to McAdams to prop up the hero when it’s clear they can’t figure out how to include her in the action; so she’s basically a human crutch. Benedict Wong and Chitwetel Ejiofor serve as sidekicks to Strange but are used mostly to field jokes and exposition which leaves them classified as: 'underutilised'. Cumberbatch does the anti-hero thing with comic book movie lightness but can only manage the arc of starting out as a self-aggrandizer and ending with Strange as an egoist in a cooler outfit.
Doctor Strange preaches about mind over matter but it’s actually the reverse for Marvel’s new hero. The aesthetics of Derrickson’s visuals are mesmerising but Doctor Strange’s mind is vacant. Then the frustration sets in, like with most of Marvel’s recent output (see: Captain America: Civil War), by aiming to please they're trapped in their the established blueprint. Marvel is stuttering along like a student that can't bust the C+ ceiling.
Cam Williams – Follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW