Doctor Strange offers ephemeral entertainment.
Set in the Marvel cinematic universe, the film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange, a hotshot neurosurgeon. After a car accident cripples his hands, Strange’s desperate search for a miracle cure leads him to Nepal. There he meets The Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton, who trains him in the mystic arts.
Strange proves himself an exceptional student. Good thing, as he’s soon under attack from Kaecilius, the Ancient One’s former star pupil. Kaecilius now serves Dormammu, an ancient entity from the Dark Dimension. Soon, Strange is all that stands between Earth and a horrible (but not well explained) fate.
We’ve seen this story before in countless martial arts films. An acolyte approaches a great master for training, excels against the odds, then clashes with the master’s once favorite student. This film merely substitutes magic for kung-fu.
The problem lies in the homogenized and watered-down execution. Strange’s arc revolves around him overcoming his arrogance. But the film paints him as a brilliant surgeon far ahead of his colleagues. Is that arrogance? Why not paint Strange as a real monster? The film doesn’t seem comfortable making Strange too unlikable. Thus, Cumberbatch’s Strange plays as a less fun version of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark from the Iron Man films. The resulting character feels thin and flat.
This extends to the villains. Mads Mikkelsen can play a great bad guy but fails to register as Kaecilius. The script gives him no edge. We’ve seen the disgruntled student archetype in countless films before, and Doctor Strange offers nothing new. Even Dormammu, who should rank among the most horrific villains in the Marvel oeuvre, fails to terrify.
The special effects also fail to connect. We see cities twisting and folding upon themselves like Rubik’s Cubes, but the film fails to surround these scenes with a compelling story. Watching New York transform into an M.C. Escher style visage is impressive, but not engaging. The effects should serve the story, not substitute for it.
This sounds like I hated the film. I did not. Though I would have preferred his native British accent, I enjoyed Cumberbatch’s performance. The real star, however, is Tilda Swinton. She takes a throw-away archetype and delivers the film’s most memorable character. And as someone who grew up reading the comics, I loved seeing the sentient Cloak of Levitation, even if it was little more than comic relief.
Indeed, after the obligatory post-credit sequence, I left the theater impressed with Doctor Strange. But in retrospect, I could remember images in the film, but none of my feelings upon seeing them.
There’s a reoccurring effect in the film where characters enter the Astral Plane. Their ethereal bodies float in the air and pass through solid objects. If they try hard enough, they can bump walls or knock things over. It’s an apt enough metaphor for the film. It looks good, but it’s hollow inside and struggles to connect. When you try to grab it, you discover there’s nothing there.