Three stars. Rated PG-13, for nonstop fantasy violence and a nasty crash scene
By Derrick Bang
As a card-carrying member of the original Merry Marvel Marching Society, I kept waiting for Dr. Strange to employ one of his favorite signature phrases: “By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!”
Here’s what else never happened: any flicker of emotional involvement with this pinball machine of a movie.
Magic-laced fantasy is much more difficult than creators often assume. Rigorous rules must be set in place, and the supernatural realm carefully conceived, with a comprehensible balance between good and evil: something that J.K. Rowling — as a recent successful example — understands full well.
To get sloppy with such strictures — or ignore them completely — results in a “story” of make-it-up-as-we-go chaos. When no limits are placed on heroes and villains, any conflict becomes meaningless. If a bad guy can bend reality to his will, well, there’s always a sentient magic cloak to help the good guy at a dire moment. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Toss in the potential for an instant re-boot, given the ability to manipulate time, and the result is even more inane.
This was the insurmountable problem with late spring’s most recent X-Men adventure, where the über-villain Apocalypse could re-shape the material world with a wave of his hand. That made him effectively unbeatable, until ultimately defeated by some “tricks” that didn’t make any sense, in light of his inherent abilities. Meanwhile, we endured an hour’s worth of meaningless, time-wasting, thud-and-blunder nonsense.
Happily, Doctor Strange isn’t laced with the sort of landscape-leveling melees that cratered entire landscapes, in early spring’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (another soulless disappointment). Physical mayhem rarely played a part in this second-tier Marvel character’s various adventures. The “master of the mystic arts” instead battled his adversaries with spells and counter-spells, often in fantastic parallel dimensions of unreality that were an excuse — in the hippy-dippy 1960s and early ’70s — for comic book panels laced with eye-popping, psychedelic visuals.
They were the four-color, printed equivalent of the LSD-influenced “star gate” sequence in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which dazzled substance-altered viewers for decades.
But no matter how hard Marvel’s writers tried — and this remained an ongoing issue — it was hard to identify with Dr. Stephen Strange. He and his opponents were too powerful, too indefinable, too weird. And too blandly impassive.
The writers of this big-screen Doctor Strange — Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill and director Scott Derrickson — haven’t solved that problem. Indeed, they willfully ignored it, to the detriment of their film. Despite a promising first act, which actually does flirt with some real-world angst and emotional trauma, their story succumbs all too quickly to little more than uninhibited, look-what-we-can-do special effects sequences.
Remember the landscape-warping dreamscapes of 2010’s Inception? Writer/director Christopher Nolan tried hard to keep that concept under control, with uneven results, but at least he put some effort into it. Derrickson and his co-writers placed no such restraints on this film’s visual effects team, headed by Stephane Ceretti and Paul Corbould (both veterans of several earlier Marvel universe movies).
So, yes: This big-screen Doctor Strange is an awesome showpiece of state-of-the-art computer graphics and breathtaking visual amazingness. But all that cotton candy excess is just a lengthy SFX demo reel, if we’re not able to care about the people at its heart, or identify with their emotional journey, or worry that they’re ever really in peril.
To his credit, Benedict Cumberbatch is well cast as the aloof and condescending Stephen Strange, introduced as an arrogant, world-famous surgeon who takes only those cases likely to enhance his reputation as God’s gift to medical breakthroughs. It’s not much of a leap from his similar (and quite appropriate) haughty take on Sherlock Holmes.
Ah, but the egotistical always get punished in morality sagas, in this case when an inattentive Stephen flips his car off the road, resulting in a horrific accident that ruins his delicate surgeon’s hands. (Takeaway lesson: Do not text and drive!) Sinking into a self-pitying frenzy that alienates even the one person who genuinely likes him — trauma surgeon and colleague, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) — Stephen researches ever-more-desperate medical methods to “fix” his hands. All to no avail.
Until one unlikely clue leads to a legendary healer who runs a mysterious enclave known as Kamar-Taj, in Kathmandu. Assuming he’ll find somebody skilled in Asian medicine, Stephen instead discovers that the “Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton) is a master practitioner of mystic arts, drawing on powers available in the countless alternative dimensions that surround our known reality.
Ah, but not everybody possesses the moral integrity to wield such abilities for the good of mankind. As we’ve already seen, via narrative cross-cutting, one of the Ancient One’s former pupils — the sparkly-eyed Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) — has succumbed to the Dark Side of the Force. (Um ... wait. Wrong fantasy realm.) Kaecilius has been seduced by a promise of ultimate power while doing the bidding of the dread Dormammu, the evil tyrant god of a “dark dimension” that seeks to devour life and planets within all dimensions, and has a particular craving for li’l ol’ Earth. (Don’t they always?)
Back at Kamar-Taj, Stephen is learning — the hard way — that he needs to abandon his conventional Western, know-it-all mentality, because, well, There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. (Oops. Another wrong fantasy realm.) Anyway, this part of the film is fun, as the vexed and frustrated Stephen is forced by a mocking Ancient One to become a better version of himself.
Cumberbatch plays exasperation well, and we almost feel sorry for the guy. Except that he never fully sheds his patronizing superiority, and that remains a problem. Thank goodness for McAdams and Swinton, both of whom know how to navigate arch one-liners with bantering aplomb. Benedict Wong also has a droll supporting role, as, um, Wong, the Ancient One’s faithful librarian.
Absent these traces of humor, this film really would be a tedious slog.
Chiwetel Ejiofor makes a strong impression as Mordo, one of the Ancient One’s senior and noblest acolytes. Ejiofor radiates dignity, grace and patience; Mordo recalls going through the same initiation trials that confound Stephen, and thus can offer informed counsel.
Longtime Marvel Comics fans know two things: The original Ancient One was a male Asian dude, not a Caucasian female. Swinton makes for interesting casting, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with a female Ancient One ... but it would have been nice if she’d been played by somebody who looks (or is) Nepalese.
As for Mordo ... well, he’s another figure from long-established Doctor Strange lore. About which, you’ll get no more from me.
Alas, Stephen’s mind/body desire to heal his hands — the original (and only) purpose for his presence at Kamar-Taj — is overtaken by increasingly deadly attacks by Kaecilius and his fellow baddies. All of the latter are nameless, faceless thugs, Derrickson & Co. apparently lacking the wit to make them actual characters. One is billed as “Brunette Zealot.” How’d you like that on your résumé?
Before Stephen knows it, he’s sucked into a mission to defend the Ancient One’s three magical strongholds — in London, Hong Kong and New York — which, thanks to the powerful Eye of Agamotto, protect Earth from other-realmly mystical invasion.
Cue the aforementioned flashy, relentless and dumb-dumb-dumb special-effects battles. Yawn.
In too many respects that matter, this Marvel Studios entry feels half-baked: a lackluster, effects-heavy effort from a writer/director best known for gory horror flicks (which is also true of co-scripter Cargill). Although Spaihts can claim credit for co-writing 2012’s much smarter Prometheus, very little of that intelligence is on display here.
Last year’s re-booted attempt at The Fantastic Four remains the most disappointing of the recent big-screen Marvel movies, but Doctor Strange is only marginally better. And that’s damning with rather faint praise.