By and large, Marvel superhero movies always feel like eating candy floss to me: they’re fun and high on in-the-moment sugar hit, but they melt away from memory just as quickly and there’s really not much substance there, even in terms of big blockbuster substance. Doctor Strange is pretty much more candy floss, but at least it’s spiked with some weird and trippy substances, and the rich, inventive, mind-bending visuals do a lot to lift a standard cookie-cutter plot.
Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is basically Tony Stark MKII – a successful arrogant jerk who becomes a hero after going through severe hardships. In this case, Strange is a brilliant neurosurgeon with a penchant for only taking on cases that are difficult but not too hopeless so as not to blemish his record. After suffering a horrific car crash that mangles his hands, he decides to put his faith into alternative medicine and travels to Kathmandu. There he discovers a secret society of warrior mystics, led by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who have powers of bending space and time and travelling through the multiverse. Of course there’s also danger afoot, with one of The Ancient One’s former students Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) planning to destroy the world… in order to save it… or something… whatever. Other than Loki, Marvel has never really been successful at memorable villains, and Kaecilius is yet another case of wasting a top-notch, uniquely gifted actor in a nothing role.
Speaking of wasted, poor Rachel McAdams is saddled with one of the most throwaway and thankless love interest roles I’ve seen in movies. Other supporting cast fare better but don’t exactly have much to chew on, though Tilda Swinton’s customary oddness and a way with a cutting remark is always welcome. I understand her casting has caused some controversy since the part was originally that of a Tibetan man, and it’s really hard to see why the filmmakers decided that whitewashing was preferable to a well-worn Asian stereotype. It makes no sense to keep the exotic Asian location and the eastern mysticism, then balk at using an actual Asian person as the leader.
As mentioned before, Strange really does come off as Tony Stark’s doppelganger, even when it comes to delivering Stark-like quips, but thankfully Cumberbatch is too much of a distinctive and enchantingly strange presence (pardon the pun) to be a mere copy. Though he’s always engaging to watch, I thought that Strange’s character arc was rather muddled. He is told repeatedly throughout the movie that he must surrender his ego and that it’s not all about himself, but then the movie pretty much justifies his ego and arrogance when he turns out to be right about far too many things. It eventually does culminate in a gesture of self-sacrifice, but the scene, as amazing and clever as it is on other levels, is played as light and fun which negates the sense of any real stakes or suffering. There’s a moment where Strange’s actions cause a loss of life, leading to a supposed moral conflict with his oath not to do harm as a doctor… which would have worked if there was any prior indication that he took the tenets of his profession seriously. But because the movie’s opening portrays him as a selfish prick who’s only in it for fame and ego, it feels contrived. The movie falls into the trap where a character is written to fit the plot and serve individual moments, rather than to create a consistent and satisfying arc.
The visuals however… oh my the visuals. It’s not just that they’re “pretty” – Doctor Strange has fun with alternate dimensions, time flow, astral bodies and worlds unbound to laws of physics in the most unbridled, joyful way I’ve ever seen in a live-action movie. There’s one sequence that looks like Inception on acid and 50 cans of Red Bull, and others seem inspired by M.C. Escher’s bizarre mathematical artwork and 70s prog rock album covers. There’s a touch of sitar in the final credits soundtrack and I was beyond thrilled to hear a track from Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn during the film. I also have to give the movie mad props for having its hero actually outsmart the villain in an ingenious fashion, rather than ending in yet another boring punch-up, and managing the exposition about all sorts of magical mumbo-jumbo in a fairly fluid way. The sheer visual creativity on display does compensate a lot for the banal plot and undercooked characters, but I hope that, with the origin story out of the way, the writers lift their game in the inevitable sequel.