For those keeping score, “Doctor Strange” marks the 14th entry in Marvel Studios’ nigh unstoppable Cinematic Universe. It is, basically, what you would expect from the franchise at this point. It’s another origin story featuring a quippy, lovable prick-protagonist who is forced to learn some degree of humility and the cosmic, world destroying, threat he must face. Additionally, it’s another Marvel Studios movie with a female love interest who’s given all of the depth of the naggy, ‘hot-wife’ on any given CBS sitcom centered on a schlubby working class dude.
“Doctor Strange” upholds Marvel Studios’ recent tradition of giving us a screen villain who is not memorable. And yet, even though “Doctor Strange” is more of the same, it’s fun in a way this franchise hasn’t been since the days of the first “Iron Man” and “Captain America” movies. Unlike the bloated “Civil War” or even the tonally confused “Ant-Man,” there’s a sense of playfulness and invention here. The series hasn’t quite managed to climb out of the creative hole it has dug itself into and probably never will. However, elements of “Doctor Strange” will manage to stay with you the moment you leave the theater and in a post “Age of Ultron” America, that’s the best we’re going to get.
Obviously, “Doctor Strange” is a superhero movie but it should be noted that its first 45 minutes play like an expensive adaptation of the “House M.D.” pilot. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange an arrogant, showboating surgeon who is prone to humiliating everyone around him in a shaky, flattened out American accent suggesting that British people think we sound like an over-enunciating game show host crossed with a Midwestern Bugs Bunny. But once a brutal car accident turns Stephen’s golden hands into quivering sacks of garbage and frayed nerves, the superheroics finally kick in as a search for a cure leads him to a monastery in Kathmandu. Although initially skeptical of the mystical teachings of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton whose fun performance nearly mitigates the whitewashing in casting her in a role originally intended for an Asian man) and her cabal of magical monks, Stephen’s obnoxious compulsion to be the smartest man in the room forces him to train extensively in some mystical mumbo jumbo he doesn’t fully believe in. Meanwhile, a former student of The Ancient One (Mads Mikkelsen) conspires with an interdimensional being to, y’know, take over the … ugh …
Do I really need to finish that? Whatever the bad guys did in the previous 13 Marvel Studios movies happens yet again.
Alright, moving on.
With the exception of “Sinister,” director Scott Derrickson’s career is littered with failed studio tent poles (the “Day the Earth Stood Still” remake) and forgettable mediocrities that deserve their place at the bottom of the $3 bin at Wal-Mart. But much in the same way that “Captain America: Winter Soldier” was a creative revelation for the Russo Brothers, “Doctor Strange” is something akin to a coming out party for Derrickson, proving he’s far more than the journeyman hack his previous films suggested. Opening with a decapitation that quickly leads into a dazzling sequence that is part “Inception” and part David Cronenberg (the buildings don’t just move around in “Doctor Strange,” they heave and shudder in a way that suggests they’re alive and suffering). Other moments include an Escher inspired chase scene, a psychedelic journey through another dimension that pays homage to Strange’s original artist and co-creator Steve Ditko and a climactic fight scene that imagines a brisker, but far darker, take on “Groundhog Day.” These moments, along with its interesting supporting cast (which includes Chiwetal Ejiofor, Benedict Wong and a wasted Rachel McAdams), are what elevates “Doctor Strange” above its standard superhero boilerplate. By no means groundbreaking or original, “Doctor Strange” is fresh enough to stand out from the increasingly stale Marvel Studios formula.
Mike Sullivan is a movie reviewer for Weekender. Movie reviews appear weekly in Weekender.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen
Director: Scott Derrickson
Weekender Rating: WWWW
Length: 115 minutes