You know, I’m starting to think that these Marvel films have a future. 14 and counting, the superhero juggernaut shows no signs of slowing down, with this offering the second of the year after the entertaining – if over-rated – Captain America: Civil War. I was looking forward to Doctor Strange for much the same reasons I had been looking forward to Ant-Man before it’s release: we’re saturated with these films, and truly new experiences are getting harder and harder to come across. Introducing the magic part of its universe fully into the “MCU” is the latest effort to keep things fresh, and who better to put in the lead than Benedict Cumberbatch, Hollywood’s resident top tier character-actor? And who better to put in the directors chair than…the man behind the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still…and a few of forgettable horrors…hmm. Was Doctor Strange the shot in the arm the MCU basically needs all the time now, or is it their first true dud in a while?
Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a world renowned surgeon, performing miracles with a scalpel in-between being a narcissistic douchebag to all around him, including former lover Christine (Rachel McAdams). After a car accident destroys his life, Strange wanders eastward in search of unorthodox healing, and finds a doorway to a new world of magic and self-discovery through the teaching of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her disciple Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). When a dangerous magical zealot (Mads Mikkelson) threatens to tear the fabric of reality apart in his quest for immortality, Strange is forced to confront darkness within and without.
I had the same reaction to Doctor Strange that I had to the last two Marvel movies, Ant-Man and Civil War. They are all fun movies, with strong performances in the lead role and with a really interesting visual spectacle propelling things along. And they all have the same flaws too, that stop them from getting to the heights that this genre has shown it can achieve, namely a pedestrian plot, a boring villain and a script too jokey for its own good. Doctor Strange is three in a row where Marvel can’t fix the problems that are besetting the wider franchise.
That spectacle element is all important now. Ant-Man had its miniaturised battles and a heist-movie feel, Civil War had the attraction of superheroes fighting superheroes. And Doctor Strange has magic, or at least the fullest portrayal of magic that the MCU has yet seen (Thor and its sequel had a bit, after all). Doctor Strange is the MCU stepping off into mostly uncharted territory then, not unlike Guardians Of The Galaxy, and the film reflects the possibilities of that, on the visual scale most of all. Notwithstanding the directors lack of priors in this big budget spectacular field, Scott Derrickson, with Ben Davis’s capability taking up the cinematographer chair, crafts a psychedelic portrayal of the magic-infused world of Doctor Strange, one part mystical journeys through time and space, one part magical battle that brought to mind The Last Airbender and Inception-on-steroids.
Derrickson and Davis clearly had a ball crafting some of these scenes, most notably Strange’s first jaunt into the world of magic and a late action set-piece where the principals fight in an landscape devastated by carnage that is slowly reversing itself back to pre-explosion status. The Inception comparisons are quite valid, as cities tumble and twist around and people jump from ceilings to walls to floor with abandon (though Nolan’s masterpiece, of course, did it better with actual, practical effects). The only problem, if you would consider it one, would be that occasionally things are too complicated visually, with so much happening on-screen in the kaleidoscopic visions that it’s hard to take it all in.
And it’s really necessary that Doctor Strange look as good as it does and engage you visually as well as it does, because so much else about it is limply pedestrian. The origin story is boiler-plate to a fault: asshole loses everything, learns to be less of an asshole, succeeds. I generally always prefer origin stories because they give the main character the chance to breathe in a way sequels can’t, and there is something to be enjoyed in the tale of this disabled surgeon desperately turning to the unknown for healing. But it’s let down by Doctor Strange‘s abnormal pacing issues, as the film moves from a patient look at Strange, his accident, the horrible aftermath and the beginnings of his journey to master the magical world, into a breakneck speed once the villain turns up, the film turning into a collection of action scenes only briefly broken up by returns to the actual plot.
Cumberbatch is in his element here: all it would take for Strange to turn into Sherlock would be for Ejiofor to be writing about him all the time. Indeed, it seems now as if Cumberbatch is getting rather typecast as eccentric, mildly annoying yet endearing genius’, with Strange running the gauntlet of inspired to curmudgeonly with gusto. The faux-American accent, ala Hugh Laurie, can be a bit distracting, but ultimately Cumberbatch delivers the goods yet again, bringing confidence, humour and a bit of humanity to a character that does go on a journey from scumbag to hero effectively. Unfortunately, those around him pale in comparison.
I’ve said it before and I know I’ll say it again, but these kind of films pivot as much around the villain as they do the hero, and the MCU’s continuing flaw is that it can’t get its villains right, with only a couple of exceptions. Here, Mads Mikkelson is handed Kaecilius, an ill-described “zealot” who thinks letting the “dark dimension” conquer the Earth is a swell idea, because he wants to be immortal. They hint that there is more to him than that, by saying he arrived at the Ancient One’s door as broken as Strange was, but in the end there’s precious little to go: Kacilius is just another nothing bad guy, like Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash, Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith or Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo, the film so fixated on Strange and fun hijinks with the Ancient One’s followers that it wouldn’t dream of actually letting its antagonist breathe. Kaecilius isn’t made interesting or sympathetic to any degree, so it’s difficult to get invested emotionally in the battle to stop him. At the same time, carefully tiptoeing around spoilers, Doctor Strange and the team behind it seem to understand the problem, spending significant time setting up a villain for the inevitable sequel, which is good to see.
Unfortunately Tilda Swinton’s very high profile casting as the Ancient One is a bit of a dud too, insofar as she brings nothing especially noteworthy to the part except for her race and gender. Swinton’s an iconic actress but the part doesn’t require much in the way of emoting, quite the opposite really. Chiwetel Ejiofor is another who isn’t getting as much good material as an actor of his calibre deserves, playing mostly as a brief mentor character in the first half of the film and as a sidekick in the second. The really ballsy move, from a casting standpoint, would have been making him Strange, and maybe Swinton as the villain (or vice versa). Others come and go in the narrative: Benedict Wong as a sometimes mildly amusing magical librarian and Rachel McAdams as a throw away love interest. It’s always disappointing to see supporting casts not get their due, especially when the weight of talent here is so huge, and while no one is disgracing themselves or putting in a bad shift, Doctor Strange could still have done more.
The script has all the hallmarks of the same multiple writer syndrome that has effected other superhero productions recently, if not quite as bad as Suicide Squad. That’s not to say it’s bad: Strange is written as wonderfully pompous and arrogant in that first act, and suitably supplicant later on, and the Ancient One also has some gems. But the tonal shifts are as jarring as they are in other Marvel productions, as Doctor Strange struggles to have any serious dramatic moments it won’t put a dumb pun or “witty” observation at the end of. Even the otherwise deadly serious villain is at it. As I’ve said before, I’m happy for DC to carry the grimdark torch and I don’t expect Marvel to deliver laughless productions, but there’s a better balance to be found: at the end of the day, it’s hard to muster up a serious sense of engagement when the characters in peril aren’t taking things seriously.
And while I might not entirely agree with the usually solid sentiments of Every Frame A Painting, the score for Doctor Strange is also a forgettable affair, that never manages to hook you in, not in the same way that other composers would be able to. Like nearly everything else with the production, outside of the visual side, Doctor Strange‘s score is something that could have done with a bit more risk-taking.
I suppose maybe it’s just sober reflection that makes me write a bit more critically of Doctor Strange than I felt when I was leaving the cinema. I think it is very much the kind of film that’s extremely enjoyable in the moment, with its exciting action sequences, slick visuals and funny script. But, like so many of the Marvel offerings of the last few years, among other examples of the superhero genre, it just doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny, especially when it comes to the repeated issues Marvel doesn’t seem inclined to solve: the dull antagonists, the struggling supporting cast and that constant shifting tone. I can only hope that next years return to space and to Asgard will set Marvel back on a better, deeper and more fulfilling path, but for now I’ll admit that there is something to be said for a magical explosion fest. A partial recommend it is.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).