by Michael Henley
It begins so swimmingly. We open inside an ancient-looking Eastern temple, where a madman (Mads Mikkelsen) and his followers steal a mystical artifact. The scuffle that follows soon spills outside—not onto a mountaintop or through a street-level bazaar but instead into the bustling streets of present day London. A heroic warrior conjures a spell that brings all the combatants into another dimension, which resembles our own, except space and matter become malleable: buildings undulate and twist like pretzels and gravity is freed to play. A fierce martial arts battle ensues, where sorcerers manipulate energy weapons while reality coils and spirals and fractures chaotically around them. It’s kinetic as all hell. The villains escape, but only after the scene has teased our expectations and delighted our sense of spectacle. As far as boffo superhero opening sequences go, this is one of the all-time greats.
Doctor Strange, however, is not one of the all-time great superhero movies, although it has flashes of true greatness. Those exist primarily on the technical side. This is a handsome production, well-directed by Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister) and brimming with spectacular action, tantalizing concepts and gorgeous design. This is a movie that consistently delivers sensational sights, both on the grandiose (a showstopping chase sequence, again in the twisty alternate dimension, encompasses a whole city neighborhood and takes on an exhilarating, Escher-like sprawl) and the intimate (two characters have a poignant conversation outside of their own bodies, on the astral plane as they observe a slowed-down New York). It throws wonders at you, big and small. On the macro level it’s a fabulously-constructed entertainment. But it is somewhat weak on its human story.
Or maybe it’s just that Marvel is repeating itself. As a character, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) plays less like a fleshed-out person and more like a road company version of Iron Man Tony Stark. Both men are arrogant, selfish, rich brats who are superstars in their fields (Strange is NYC’s top neurosurgeon). Both love to embarrass their intellectual inferiors, crack wise, and snarkily combat the crucial women in their lives (Iron Man had Gwyneth Paltrow; Strange’s ex-lover is a doctor played by warm-hearted Rachel McAdams). Both men are waylaid by accidents that cause severe infirmities—a car crash one night leaves Strange a shell of a man, and his rebuilt hands and fractured nerves leave him shaky and rudderless. And while trying to rebuild their bodies, both men end up stumbling upon incredible power and ultimately upgrade their souls (Stark through tech, Strange through a roll call of mystic arts). From a distance, the two even look alike, especially once Strange clips his hair and grooms his beard into a goatee, as if he’s read the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comic books and knows instinctively that’s what he should look like.
The difference between the two performances, however, is key: Downey gave us a character who discovered a heart, and it was a good look on him. Strange, as played by Cumberbatch, is distant and mysterious and grumblingly ironic even when the scales fall from his eyes. He has a terrific voice and forceful screen presence, and no one is better at communicating fiercely-guarded intelligence, but he doesn’t really convey the vulnerability that we need from a hero with such a monstrous ego. He has unconvincing desperation in a scene where he arrives at the door of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a guru who gives him a mind-bending tour of the multiverse and then tutors him in magical arts. And before long he’s trading arrogance in one field for arrogance in another, as he reads every book in the mystical library and works on his powers with surprisingly little difficulty. On a very real level, the character remains flat. He wins our interest, but not exactly our sympathy.
So the movie perhaps lacks a magnetic anchor. But there are times when it almost doesn’t matter. Strange serves as an agreeable proxy for us to enter into this world and be suitably amazed. The Ancient One’s temple, Kamar-Taj, located in Kathmandu, is the stage for an unreasonably entertaining series of training sequences, given that so much of them consist of gobs of exposition, often delivered by Swinton with a friendly, patient smile—she brings an earthly slyness to a character that could easily be inscrutable. Chiwetel Ejiofor, meanwhile, brings powerful presence to the one-note hero Mordo, who serves as foil to Strange and teaches him about metaphysical weaponry. We learn about magic and other worlds, and how Strange can marshal forces to levitate, manipulate matter, pass through dimensions and teleport within this one. All accomplished with dazzling imagery, a bit of playfulness, and an ability to create a tactile, unique visual language for the conceits: the portals, weapons, dimensional anomalies and talismans all glow in bright, lush vivid colors, often shedding little mystical embers that fall pleasingly into space.
This is all enjoyable stuff, and it’s lovingly rendered in faithful strokes that will appeal to Doctor Strange fans and newcomers (although the casting of Swinton as The Ancient One, a bit of race-bending designed to placate the all-important Chinese market, has raised deserved brickbats). Less successful, though, is the movie’s main story, where Mikkelson sleepwalks through a villain role (save for a couple of flashes that adequately use Mikkelson’s considerable talents). He’s a maniac who has stolen forbidden spells and plans on touching a dark dimension. Eventually there’s an evil cloud monster who wants to destroy the Earth, and Strange must use some unexpected tools, and it feels more than a little rote and rushed (and more reminiscent of 2011’s Green Lantern than the filmmakers may be comfortable with). There are clever touches throughout (a climactic battle that simultaneously moves forward and backwards in time, and a final confrontation that is daring both formalistically and tonally), but I think the film—in a haste to establish so many rules and characters and events, just feels like it has limited breathing room for the threats and stakes. We’re barely given time to accept this universe and all of a sudden we’re given a barrage of the craziest stuff in it. It’s just…a little bit too much, too fast.
Those symptoms kinda show up in other ways. McAdams, always a winning presence, is relegated to just worrying about Strange, being dismayed by him, being amazed by him, and then patching him up occasionally—it’s pleasing that she’s not a damsel and that she identifies as a no-nonsense professional, but her character feels incomplete. Ejiofor makes choices late in the game that feel driven by the need for further adventures than anything organic to this story (and shows his character may have a shaky grasp of situational ethics). Benedict Wong, as an acolyte named Wong, gets some solid moments but feels underutilized. The movie’s ending is unquestionably abrupt, either to whet our appetite for further appearances, or perhaps to get more quickly to the closing credits tags that Marvel now regularly uses and abuses (there are two this time). And can someone explain why you hire a renowned actor like Michael Stuhlbarg and give him a nothing role as an ER doctor?
Plenty of movie and comic book fans, however, will go to Doctor Strange not for scintillating performances or laser-precise storytelling. They will go to be entertained, and they deserve to be, and they will be, because on many levels the production is tireless in making sure that happens. There’s honor in that, and achievement most certainly. If anything, there’s just so much brilliant work on display in Doctor Strange (let’s give another shout out to that balletic zero-G Escher-nightmare action sequence about 2/3-through, which is sock-rocking) that you can’t help but wonder what would have happened if everything about it had been brought to that level.
Doctor Strange opens tonight at multiplexes throughout Philadelphia.