As the Marvel Cinematic Universe catches up with the old Marvel comic books in terms of an expansive breadth of superheroes, we now get a movie about one of the comics' more exotic outliers, the mystical Stephen Strange.
In my late '70s/early '80s childhood – the so-called "Bronze Age" of comics – I saw the good doctor as one of Marvel's few "older" protagonists, with his gray temples and fatherly mustache. He wasn't plagued by doubt, angst, or relationship woes like the X-Men. He was cool but withdrawn, reading spell books in his Sanctum Sanctorum until someone required his sorcery to help defeat some enemy or other.
In short, I never pined for an origin story about this character. But given the high quality of the Marvel/Disney films, I checked out Doctor Strange anyway.
Here Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a brilliant if arrogant New York surgeon who ruins his hands in a car wreck, then seeks to heal them with Eastern medicine in Kathmandu. He gets more than he bargained for when a guru known only as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, in a bit of racial cross-casting that caused some controversy) decides to train him as a supernatural warrior. Plenty of fighting with bad guys ensues.
What sets Doctor Strange apart are its astonishing visuals. This is one of those films, like The Matrix and Inception, that take digital effects to the next level. (Indeed, at times Doctor Strange feels like the previous two movies on steroids.) If it doesn't win the Oscar for visual effects, I'll eat my hat.
It's curious, then, that between VFX set pieces, the film's mise en scène is rather flat: mostly medium shots and reverse shots, with characters standing around and talking. It's not boring – in fact, there's a lot more humor than I expected – but Doctor Strange feels like two different films: a mind-boggling psychedelic trip on the one hand, a routine drama on the other. As a friend of mine put it, writer/director Scott Derrickson, who cut his teeth on middling studio horror pictures like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister, comes across as a wannabe VFX supervisor. The bits with the actors just don't interest him as much as the bits with the computers.
The plot is intelligent if sometimes unintelligible, with a climax that could fit into an old Star Trek episode (that's a good thing), but character motivations are murky and some story points get lost. And of course Marvel has to shoehorn the film into its upcoming Avengers: Infinity War saga, which I already wish was over because I'm kind of done with this Infinity Stones nonsense.
The cast is okay, though I wish Cumberbatch, that most British of actors, hadn't been saddled with an American accent. It's decent, but it's distracting, and it makes his performance a little artificial. I suppose the comics' Doctor Strange was always meant to be American, but on paper, with his aloof sophistication, I could imagine him speaking like David Niven – or, for that matter, like Benedict Cumberbatch.