In the year of our lord, 2016, we have reached the landmark 14th film from Marvel Studios, a visually impressive adventure titled “Doctor Strange.” Directed by Scott Derrickson from a screenplay written by Jon Spaihts and Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, “Strange” arguably features the most talented Marvel cast to date with acclaimed actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mads Mikkelsen bringing the origin of the Sorcerer Supreme to the big screen. In theory, the trippy tale of Dr. Stephen Strange should have a unique aesthetic and tone for a Marvel movie and while the production broke out of the traditional studio environment traveling from the streets of Manhattan to the bustling street markets in Kathmandu, Nepal, some imaginative visual effects and Oscar worthy actors can’t solve everything.
In many ways the storyline of “Doctor Strange” might sound mightily familiar at first. Strange, an arrogant, rich neurosurgeon with a mildly funky American accent (Cumberbatch) gets in a massive car accident and loses the ability to use his hands. Desperate to restore his very reason for living (and livelihood), our future hero travels to Nepal to find Kamar-Taj, the home of a being who will provide him with the power to restore his manhood, er, hands. That mysterious entity is referred to as The Ancient One (Swinton) and her allies include the morally steadfast Mordo (Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong), a librarian you’d never want to argue late fees with.
Strange soon learns about the power of real magic (not the kind you find in Las Vegas), the existence of a multiverse of different realities and how to project his spirit onto the astral plane (since this appears inherently cooler let’s just pretend we haven’t seen Professor X do this already, O.K.?). All key elements of a character Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created over 53 years ago. Thanks to his photographic memory, Strange is able to memorize and master volumes of spell books faster than many of the other inhabitants of Kamar-Taj and while his ego is humbled here and there (probably not enough) The Ancient One soon recognizes his vast potential as a champion for the forces of good.
Crashing this zen-like party is Kaecilius (Mikkelsen), a former student of The Ancient One’s who has tapped into the dark dimension of Dormammu and is willing to do whatever it takes to help his master take over the planet (heard that one before?). Armed with the Eye of Agamotto and a levitating cloak with a Disney-esque mind of its own, Dr. Strange is soon thrust into combat with Kaecilius and the threat of deadly consequences he may not be ready for.
Like most Marvel movies, “Doctor Strange” would be pure escapist fare except for two important elements: the film’s often stunning depiction of the multiverse and a cast that simply insist their characters are grounded even with all the fantastical drama surrounding them (something audiences have not seen since the first “Iron Man” or portions of “The Avengers”).
If you were concerned after the movie’s previews that Derrikson and his visual effect team has borrowed a bit too much from “Inception” you’ll be happy to know that reference will quickly fade from your memory as the movie progresses. Like its comic book source material, the multiverse allows Derrickson to depict the use of magic in ways not seen previously in modern media. The results may not always be perfectly executed, but the ideas are inherently more creative than you’d ever expect.
Derrickson’s greatest asset, however, is his cast. Although a British accent would have worked just fine in our opinion (did we hint at that earlier?), Cumberbatch is riveting throughout the picture and makes you believe in Strange’s transformation from entitled douche-bag to fearless hero even when the script itself can’t really justify it. It goes without saying that McAdams will never get the credit she deserves for transforming the barely sketched out role of Strange’s former medical colleague Christine Palmer into a captivating three-dimensional character that feels like an integral part of the storyline even when she isn’t. Swinton is not responsible for the valid criticism over the studio casting a non-Asian character to play what was traditional a male Asian character, but her admitted goal of playing The Ancient One genderless will be obvious to many and she dominates every scene she’s in which is no easy feat considering her co-stars. Excuse the actor jargon, but Mikkelsen gives truth to what could have easily been a superhero stock villain. While other great actors have gotten lost playing Marvel bad guys, Mikkelsen is able to walk a fine enough line that you truly believe his character’s flimsy motivations. And, when you put any of these actors in a scene together they operate on a wavelength that, at times, is a joy to behold.
Despite all that, what holds back “Doctor Strange” from reaching Nolan-esque heights is the air of utter familiarity surrounding it. Surprisingly, Derrickson is able to minimize the Marvel Cinematic Universe (aka MCU) references that have transitioned faster than anyone expected from energetic world building to cumbersome backstory. Sure, there are two subtle mentions of the Avengers, but thankfully Tony Stark or the Falcon don’t stop by to make a cameo just for the sake of said cameo (although it would be disingenuous not to admit we would have endorsed a random Black Panther drop by). Instead, it’s the below the line contributions that keep “Strange” squarely in the middle of the Marvel movie style guide.
Ben Davis is a fine cinematographer, but this film is almost depressingly duplicitous to his work on “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The same can be said of production designer Charles Wood (add “Thor: The Dark World”) and costume designer Alexandra Byrne (add “The Avengers,” “Thor”). There is nothing wrong with incorporating similar elements from previous pictures, but these talents appear stuck in a box that “Doctor Strange,” in particular, should not be trapped in. Nothing looks bad. It’s just too uninspired when compared to the visual effects and alternate worlds you wish Dr. Strange would keep jumping into.
Most disarming is Michael Giacchino’s safer-than-a-town-square-in-Middle-America score. Giacchino is one of the best composers working today, but he’s completely wrong for the visuals and trippy nature of everything else Derrickson is seemingly trying to accomplish. “Strange” is the sort of movie that screams for the talents of Jóhann Jóhannsson, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Abel Korzeniowski or even Hans Zimmer, Carter Burwell or Cliff Martinez for Pete’s sake. Not only can you catch a refrain of Giacchino’s iconic “Star Trek” theme during the picture, his score (or Derrickson’s choice of using it) hampers what should have been an incredibly moving scene between Swinton and Cumberbatch (a moment that would likely have brought audiences to tears if the music was removed completely).
And, yet, even when the familiar distracts the actors, Derrickson find a way to bring you back in. That’s apparent most prominently in Ejiofor’s portrayal of Mordo. The last time a supporting character’s motivations in a Marvel movie were played in such captivating shades of gray was when Tom Hiddleston brought Loki to life in the first “Thor.” Ejiofor is so good you’ll likely be more excited about Mordo’s potential return than that of the title character himself (Semi-spoiler alert: the familiar Bond franchise promise appears at the end of the film).
But all that being said is it wrong to want more? Is it unfair to ask for a studio to let its franchises reach for artistic heights outside of the rules of the kingdom when the material warrants it? Is the pressure over box office performance severely limiting what is possible with these characters? Make no mistake; there is no disputing this is clearly one of Marvel’s better efforts. And, yes, attempting to break from the expected shackles of a lineage of other origin movies is difficult, but you still feel the formula straining at the core of “Doctor Strange.” And at this point, we simply can no longer grade this picture – or any other superhero movie for that matter – on a curve.