Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton
Director: Scott Derrickson
Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
The neverending assembly line of Marvel studio product has, in many ways, reached a point where no risks need to be taken, attempts at personal authorship are unnecessary, and most importantly, the films themselves no longer need to be any good in order to succeed. The term "critic-proof" has been lobbied at the Marvel universe for several years now, and the results have been a string of safely packaged, fan-service nonsense (save for a few notable exceptions) which all feel homogenized to appeal to the Marvel "house style." Director Scott Derrickson's visually inventive Doctor Strange is the first entry since Ant-Man to feel aesthetically distinctive enough to warrant mention, and the first Marvel film since Guardians of the Galaxy to actually feels like it's trying to be a movie.
If this were simply a visual and auditory experience, Doctor Strange could undoubtedly break through as the first legitimate Marvel stoner film, but it's also telling another origin story about a wealthy egotistical white man coming to grips with his privileged white man problems in order to become a better superhero. This is unfortunate, and for all the mind-bending CGI set-pieces and dizzying action choreography, Doctor Strange is nevertheless the story of a smug asshole learning how to be a little less of a smug asshole.
Still, there's no denying Derrickson and his crack team of visual artists tweak the Marvel tradition of bland action and TV-level visual dynamics into something wholly eye-popping and enjoyably nuts. Instead of dreary, blandly lit rooms where a team of superheroes trade barbs while navigating a cookie cutter narrative, we have exotic locales, darkened corridors, and trippy multiverse imagery. Trading in bro-heavy macho posturing for Eastern mysticism, magical spells, and inter-dimensional freakouts is also a novelty, but there's still that annoying origins story to contend with. When we first meet Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), he's glibly answering music trivia while operating on a patient, berating fellow physicians for incorrect diagnoses, and treating nurse Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) as his personal neurosurgical slave. What follows is Marvel narrative beats 101; a hubristic man has a terrible accident (in this case, a nasty car crash which renders his hands useless), seeks to regain his power, goes through training in order to reorient his perspective on life, and then becomes an all-powerful hero with a God complex.
What ultimately makes the film so enjoyable isn't the plot, of course. What matters here is that Derrickson has found a way to cannily shift away from the stale aesthetic of previous Marvel efforts while still feeling very much like the type of product fans have come to expect. For example, when Strange ventures to Nepal to be trained by a sorcerer named The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) while teaming up with fellow mystic Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) for some mind-expanding revelations, the film takes a plunge down the rabbit hole of collapsing mirror worlds and kaleidoscopic visuals unlike anything we've seen from this franchise. However, for every stellar set-piece; a fight between Strange and the villainous Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) involving trap doors, interlocking portals, and spinning rooms, is ingeniously executed, there's yet another thudding example of problematic plotting and gender dynamics. Though many will complain about Swinton being cast as an Eastern mystic, McAdams' role as the long-suffering woman at Strange's beck and call is even more offensive. Christine Palmer is little more than a generic love interest, and much of her screen time exists either for cheap laughs or to be subjugated by Strange's mansplaining methods.
Despite these flaws (which, by the way, are endemic of all Marvel films), Doctor Strange does enough in terms of visual audacity and clever inversions of standard action sequences to place it ahead of most of what passes for big blockbuster entertainment these days. There will be obvious links to The Matrix and Inception (both warranted), but the film feels much closer to a Harry Potter movie by way of Stephen Chow's Journey to the West (minus the all Asian cast, of course) than either of those two comparisons. One could call it an Escher-like leap into cosmic ridiculousness that just so happens to feature another goatee-wearing egotist, or maybe it's simply yet another assembly line Marvel product in which the creative team digested one too many magic mushrooms during pre-production. Whatever the case, there's no denying the ease in which these new characters follow familiar beats while trapped inside an unfamiliar multiverse.