One of the great magic tricks of Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) is in how that film is filled with wall-to-wall exposition and explanation of the world’s mechanics while remaining utterly engaging for the entirety of its runtime. Inception is clearly a huge influence upon Marvel’s new, Scott Derrickson-directed, Dr. Strange, a film that combines mind-bending visuals with talky exposition, and is very good at the former and not-so-great at the latter. Doctor Strange looks fantastic, as a showcase for stunning visuals it sings, unfortunately it dedicates an equal amount of time to characters talking about mystical gobbledygook.
From a storytelling standpoint, Doctor Strange does little to deviate from standard-model Marvel Cinematic Universe fare. The titular character is somewhat more obscure than his Marvel Comics cohorts and, as such, is given an origin story that feels more than a bit rote, given the audience’s familiarity with superhero genre at this late date. Brilliant, photographic memory-ed, surgeon Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), has his hands horribly mangled in a car wreck, leaving his career and psyche in ruins. After receiving advice from a miraculously recovered paraplegic (Benjamin Bratt in a one-scene role), Strange seeks out an order of mystics led by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who train him in the ways of magic and battle. Meanwhile a plot develops (mostly offscreen and ignored) in which rival sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his followers court the apocalypse by summoning an ancient evil from “The Dark Dimension.” In addition to The Ancient One’s spiritual guidance, Strange is trained by Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and advised by magic librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) and when he gets a chance to return to New York he makes eyes at his former flame, Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer, and enjoys a professional competition with rival surgeon played by Michael Stuhlbarg. As you may have gathered, Doctor Strange possesses a ridiculously accomplished cast, most of whom do expectedly good work; faring worst is, surprisingly, Cumberbatch who sports an American accent typical of English actors, meaning that it may be technically sound but is so regionally nonspecific as to be entirely unbelievable.
There is some really cool stuff in Doctor Strange. As stated above, the visuals are incredible, most notably those that involve city streets and buildings twisting and turning into new shapes, and the creative stopping, starting, and reversing of time. As with the strongest of MCU material, there is a strong sense of humor at play which stops the movie from taking its material too seriously without undercutting it completely. The big problem here is that no one seems particularly interested in the story, probably because this is not an interesting story. The raison d’etre here is not to make an engaging standalone film, it is to introduce Doctor Stephen Strange to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and get his origin story out of the way for more interesting sequels down the road. The next Doctor Strange will be the one to really look forward to.
Dr. Strange (Marvel Studios)
Director: Scott Derrickson
Producer: Kevin Feige
Screenwriter: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Cinematographer: Ben Davis
Editor: Wyatt Smith, Sabrina Plisco
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton
English/ PG-13/ 115 min.