Anyone who knows me knows I have a bit of a problem with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s not that it hasn’t produced entertaining films or interesting characters, in fact they’re littered through the MCU. It’s simply that it’s so familiar, the formula so cut and dry that no risks are ever taken. At this point the MCU is the McDonald’s of the Cineplex – satisfying in the moment but ultimately just a fleeting memory and an upsetting dump before work. But to see an actor of the caliber of Benedict Cumberbatch sign his life away gave me a modicum of hope that Doctor Strange would at least be interesting.
And at the very least that’s what it is. When the MCU strikes the right chord (Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy) it traffics in a wonderful blend of comedy and superhero action. Early on the lightness felt like a reprieve from Christopher Nolan’s relentlessly dour Dark Knight Trilogy. Eventually that well ran dry, leaving a shell of a once refreshing formula. Doctor Strange does absolutely nothing to improve on that. But what it attempts to do is to layer on a healthy dose of weirdness and for that it should be commended with a tepid pat on the butt.
Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is an ego-maniacal neurosurgeon with a pension for self-promotion. He’s Tony Stark with a scalpel. Having exhausted most normal surgeries Strange is looking to branch out. He uses international contacts to try and find new and interesting forms of surgery that could increase his visibility and deepen his pockets.
One evening when driving his car while talking on his cell phone (PSA) Strange gets in a horrible car accident leaving his hands conveniently wrecked, nerves and all. Broken and disheveled he alienates any and all close to him including his part-time, on again, off again lover Christine Palmer (a criminally underused Rachel McAdams) and goes searching for answers. Using the last of his fortune (apparently he’s bad with money although he seems exceedingly wealthy) Strange travels to Nepal to find a person who miraculously cured a patient from paralysis.
Here Strange discovers The Ancient One (a wonderfully bald Tilda Swinton) who leads a band of master mystics – basically a bunch of people in robes who can summon energy weapons and manipulate space time. As Strange learns, he discovers the secrets of the mystic world and the evil that threatens it (and eventually becomes Neo from The Matrix.)
That evil is manifested in Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius, a former student of the Ancient One who has discovered the dark side (basically) that promises eternal life. The struggle of light vs. dark doesn’t fall far from the tree.
The Doc Strange origin story we’ve all seen before but where the film truly shines is in the seamless action scenes sprinkled throughout. Director Scott Derrickson’s visualizations of mystic time/shape shifting is like Inception on speed. Entire cities contort like a rubik’s cube with the actors running, jumping and battling throughout. Often, the mystics will even stop time, leaving the entirety of New York in a standstill as the punches fly. It’s the first truly awe inspiring thing Marvel has produced in a decade. They are a company that is so afraid to be weird that when they stumble into it almost feels like a mistake.
This visual splendor is almost enough to forgive Doctor Strange its many sins but alas it cannot overcome them all. The film’s gross mistreatment of minorities and women feels like it belongs in another decade (and on a day when this trailer is released it feels especially retrograde) and the white savior theme is so tired I can hear Catholic Jesus yawning. Even still – this is genuinely stupid superhero fodder and for pure escapism you can do far worse. Plus the colors are pretty dope.