A major consequence of how tightly Marvel tethers its movies to the central cob of its Cinematic Universe is the difficulty that comes in judging any new entry beyond the shadow of everything that has come before. Still, Doctor Strange seems especially susceptible to comparison with the MCU of past, though not always to its disadvantage. The film falters in its insistence to follow too closely in the footsteps of what has worked for Marvel to date; where it soars, however, is in its nigh unparalleled will to try something altogether new.
The phantom of Tony Stark does no favors for Benedict Cumberbatch’s snarky egotist Stephen Strange, who can’t crack a joke or spray bravado with the kind of charm we’ve seen from Robert Downey Jr.’s affable genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist jackass. It doesn’t help matters that Doctor Strange opts to rush through our introduction to our hero at breakneck pace, entrusting the bulk of its establishing characterization in a single shot of a drawer of rotating wristwatches. Granted, possession thereof does tell you a fair amount about a person.
Though we know that Stephen is a man driven by glories big (e.g., being the best damn neurosurgeon on the face of the Earth) and small (e.g., knowing who Chuck Mangione is), his eventual emancipation from his profession, and from his relationship with fellow doc Christine Palmer ( Rachel McAdams), does not carry the weight it demands when the movie launches its defining plot turn around what feels like five minutes in.
That Stephen’s emotional journey from there on out is so reliant on our understanding of his emotional and psychological makeup is a constant reminder that Doctor Strange, and—though I implore you to do a better job than I did of trying to judge this movie in a vacuum—maybe Marvel on the whole is getting a little lax when it comes to building their heroes.
But there’s a silver lining to how quickly Doctor Strange breezes through its illustration of its sorcerer supreme-in-the-making: we get to the actual good part much more quickly. After an accident destroys his hands, costing him his line of work and, more significantly, self-worth, the hard science-inclined Stephen goes for broke and takes a stab at a rehabilitative program of a more spiritual bent. Relocating to Kathmandu, Stephen undertakes the tutelage of the Ancient One ( Tilda Swinton) and her star pupil Mordo ( Chiwetel Ejiofor), soon enough finding himself ensconced in the sort of supernatural action-adventures her community of wizards deals with on a daily basis.
Here is where the unavoidable inclination to compare and contrast with Marvel films of yore actually does Doctor Strange a service. Even for those who haven’t yet tired of the straightforward fisticuffs and flashier battle royales that have proved a constant from Iron Man through Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange’s bombastic break from routine should feel terrifically refreshing.
With heroes and villains imbued with the powers to bend time and space, transcend metaphysical dimensions, and do a whole lot of other wacky stuff that bears little foundation in tangible mythos, Doctor Strange breaks ground in some of the most visually and kinetically imaginative set pieces we’ve seen lately not only in the MCU, but in blockbuster filmmaking across the board. Part of Stephen’s orientation into the Ancient One’s mystical menagerie involves a torrential thrust through the varied corners of the multiverse (a term finally said out loud); the film’s biggest action sequence sees good sorcerers facing off against bad sorcerers in a perpetually tessellating New York City—for my money, the most thrilling battle scene Marvel has mustered to date.
Best of all, perhaps, is Doctor Strange’s especially unorthodox choice of climactic conquest, which eschews the traditional bout of municipal annihilation (in fact, the movie actually subverts this frequently maligned ritual in a rather cheeky way) for something a good deal more creative, albeit thematically out of left field.
Doctor Strange mines plenty of joy and fervor from the uniqueness of its particular brand of magic and mayhem, though maybe not enough to forgive the characters who courier us between these high points. Cumberbatch is not the only cast member whose moments don’t land. Though Swinton is, on paper, right at home as an immortal being charged with bestowing the wisdom and whimsy of the multiverse unto her earthly underlings, her scripting doesn’t allow her to deliver on the promise innate to her casting in a role.
Strength of performance aside, her presence in this particular movie will be difficult for many to estrange from extratextual connotation; Doctor Strange tries to use the enchantment of mystery to explain away its choice to occupy a traditionally Asian character with a white actor, though it feels at these points like it is only further digging its own grave.
Supporting players come to the story with a little more juice, notably Mads Mikkelsen, who supplies one of Marvel’s best villains yet by way of funky eye makeup and existential rants about the nature of time. Meanwhile, dialogue concerning dark energy and mirror universes are a kick when delivered through Ejiofor’s mighty thespianism. McAdams, while shouldering a profoundly thankless role as Stephen’s eternally reliable ex, earns more than her share of laughs when thrown from everyday hospital drama into supernatural hijinks. Finally, we have Benedict Wong. Though likewise shafted in the matter of material as temple librarian and sentinel Wong, his enduring deadpan lifts a few lesser scenes to passable humor. Oh, and Michael Stuhlbarg uses a vending machine.
All that said, the bright and dim spots of Doctor Strange’s collected cast prioritizes low against the hollow nature—and, yas, insistence of comparison to Iron Man—of Stephen Strange himself. That the film’s story is so beholden to his being a figure of intriguing design might sink it altogether if not for the majesty of its action. Spectacle is as important a character to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as its caped crusaders, and never before has this proved such a significant truth. Of course, never before has Marvel endeavored anything close to this kind of spectacle, a fact that’s sure to wow you all the more as Doctor Strange hurtles through the vast cosmos and between the rotating skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan.
RATING: 3.5 OUT OF 5
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Find him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.