Marvel's "Doctor Strange" Pokes Viewers In Third Eye

Eight years on from Jon Favreau’s first “Iron Man” film, “Doctor Strange” arrives as the fourteenth entry in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. If the studio has been less than inclusive with its top talent (all fourteen films have been headlined and directed by white males), it’s at least been a little more creatively generous. Tapping television folks like Alan Taylor (“Thor: The Dark World“) and Anthony and Joe Russo (“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) to helm $150 million tentpoles has afforded Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige the appearance of inspiration, if not the real thing. Never mind that the studio is notorious for writing movies by committee, low-balling talent, and denying creative control to proven filmmakers. With but one or two exceptions, the movies have hit, bringing cool, fun superhero swagger to an eager, dollar-waving public.

But nothing gold can stay, not even the Hollywood equivalent of a fleet of gold-plated Brinks trucks. “Doctor Strange” is where the welcome wears out, where Marvel’s shortcomings take center stage and play a thousand encores. Moviegoers pining for an amalgam of two Christopher Nolan films (“Batman Begins” and “Inception”) and two Marvel ones (“Thor” and “Ant-Man”) might have an okay time, but those looking for another imaginative freak out in the vein of “Guardians Of The Galaxy?” They’ll be out of luck – and out of reasons to suffer through anymore Marvel origin stories.

Nothing in writer-director Scott Derrickson’s resume suggests a knack for dialogue or characters, two things that have become Marvel’s calling card. His last film, “Deliver Us From Evil,” was intriguing in concept but disastrous in execution, a paragon of style over substance that squandered a perfectly good cast. “Strange” isn’t so different. Its raft of great performers, led by Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Imitation Game”) as surgeon Stephen Strange, are all held captive to the movie’s kaleidoscopic visuals, talking a lot and saying very little. Their constant chatter about spirituality and self-sacrifice comes with an impressive syllable count but without much thematic meat on the bone.

Take for example the picture’s “egotistical rich playboy finds power in Eastern mysticism” storyline, one that played so well in “Batman Begins.” It’s considerably staler and more simplistic here, eleven years down the line, relying on an uncommonly quick pivot from its poorly drawn title character: from irredeemable asshole to enlightened good guy. The transformation never rises above glitzy Aesop’s fable, seeing its hero become a hero literally by accident. Because of inattentive driving the super unlikable Strange crashes his car and is robbed of his essence – his steady surgical hands – and forced to reinvent.

He’s soon off to Kathmandu in search of an oracle known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, in an inexplicably whitewashed take on the character) and a treatment for his newly mangled, shaky fingers. The Ancient One’s surfeit of “What if I told you” Matrix-isms lead into some of the film’s coolest visual passages, but the words themselves are pablum. The script’s employment of things like astral bodies (ghostly out-of-body human forms) has no significance beyond its effect on the action scenes.

Beginning with the Nepal scenes, Derrickson and co-writers Jon Spaihts (“Prometheus”) and C. Robert Cargill (longtime Ain’t It Cool News contributor) proudly reduce their lead to purveyor of pretzel logic who lacks any kind of plan beyond fighting any bad guy who happens to present himself. The supporting characters are similarly simplistic. Chiwetel Ejiofor spends most of the movie slumming it as Mordo, one of the Ancient One’s underlings, never given enough to do to graduate to sidekick. The same goes for Benedict Wong as Wong, the decidedly Eastern film’s only substantive Eastern character. Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer, Strange’s ex and on-again love interest, would be the most thankless character if not for Michael Stuhlbarg’s Dr. West, Strange’s professional rival, who’s discarded halfway through the movie.

For a multidimensional visual trip, these are all shockingly one-dimensional characters. Lucky for them, none are saddled with as laughable a monologue as the one Benjamin Bratt delivers in a quick cameo. Even the half-baked “Iron Man 2” never dipped to such lows, occasionally covering its seams between inventiveness and uninspired studio notes. Derrickson’s movie is so easily broken down into two parts – the talking parts and the fighting parts – that it might be ideally viewed in YouTube clips. Maybe that’s what Marvel wants, after all: the option to advertise toys and clothes to viewers while they’re watching their movies.

Mads Mikkelsen’s villain is a relative highlight, even if he’s given no meaningful backstory until more than an hour in. Just like in “Casino Royale,” his intimidating presence elevates a by-the-book baddie, lending gravitas where there otherwise isn’t any. But he’s only the film’s second most compelling character. It’s most compelling? Strange’s sentient red cloak, the only player that doesn’t drool expository dialogue.

Unusually for a Marvel movie, the attempts at humor are awkward and not baked in. They’re hastily sprinkled on and most often roll off, from ham-fisted jokes about Wi-fi and Beyoncé to a climax that mashes the gaudy visuals of 2011’s ill-fated “Green Lantern” into a “Groundhog Day”-esque time loop that’s supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny. It’s worth half a smirk.

It’s this kind of ephemeral weirdness that makes the otherwise conservative screenplay all the more vexing. Is this a wild drug trip of a movie or a photocopied mid 2000s origin yarn? The two sides eventually cancel each other out, falling into a heap of exhaustion on the floor, like Strange’s battered red cloak. What we’re left with is a C comic book character given a D screenplay and some A visuals, averaging out to Marvel Studios’ worst movie to date.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: November 4, 2016
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios
Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenwriter: Scott Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Michael Stuhlbarg
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence)