By Preston Wilder
The only must-see bit in Doctor Strange comes about a third of the way through the closing credits, when the title character (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) gets a visit from one of the Avengers and agrees to help the team in the event of an extraterrestrial threat. It’s not a particularly clever scene – but it does confirm that Strange will be returning in an upcoming movie, maybe as early as next year, and, for Marvel fans obsessed with the various permutations of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), that’s a must-have piece of information. Marvel have achieved something remarkable, creating a can’t-miss franchise (and a willing fanbase) where the quality of any given part comes a distant second to its place in the whole.
That said, there are other excellent bits in Doctor Strange – especially a psychedelic, kaleidoscopic, gloriously surreal early scene where Strange first discovers the astral dimension, wandering among blobs of colour, splintered images and what looks like a sea of hands (then, for a trippy punchline, he looks down at his own hand, and each finger sprouts into a whole separate hand). The first half-hour is superb in general, a fluidly-told tale of hubris as arrogant surgeon Strange lords it over the hospital, gets in a car accident due to his own reckless driving, lashes out at his loyal not-quite-girlfriend (Rachel McAdams, almost as wasted here as she was in Southpaw) in a shockingly ugly argument – then ends up in Nepal, where he finds enlightenment at the hands of venerable sorceress Tilda Swinton and fellow pilgrim Chiwetel Ejiofor. (If this were a Friends episode it might be ‘The One With All the English Actors’ – though a Dane, Mads Mikkelsen, provides the villain.)
Things go downhill fast once Strange finds his powers, though the film rallies briefly at the end with an ingenious resolution to the inevitable showdown with the Dark Dimension. Simply put, this is an origin story, so the sole narrative hook is watching hero become superhero; he can (and should) keep learning as the film goes on, but once the transformation is complete, so is the story. That’s why Spider-Man and Darkman, two of the worthiest comic-book movies (both pre-dating the MCU), end with the superhero finally affirming his newfound identity: “Who am I? I’m Spider-Man…”
Doctor Strange doesn’t quite get that right; Strange seems to get awfully good awfully fast, then the second half is repetitive action interspersed with bickering between the central trio. Is Tilda (known simply as ‘The Ancient One’) secretly in league with the Dark Dimension? Is Strange still in thrall to his “over-inflated ego”? Ejiofor’s character, meanwhile, frets about our hero’s methods breaking natural laws, or the space-time continuum or whatever – a too-vague conflict that’s transparently only there to set up a sequel. Admittedly, Strange does pick up a few cool props as the film goes on – notably ‘The Eye of Agamotto’, which allows him to manipulate Time like a yo-yo – and he learns about self-sacrifice and becomes less selfish, at least in theory, yet he doesn’t really change as a character; he’s still the same brainy doctor as before, only now a brainy superhero. I guess it’s easier when you start with a callow, un-confident hero like Peter Parker.
The film fills the gap with more trippy visuals (though there should’ve been even more), more kaleidoscopic wormholes and screen-splitting wizardry and skyscrapers folding into pretzels – but mostly it goes for snarky humour, not because it fits necessarily (god knows director Scott Derrickson, whose best film is Sinister, isn’t known for comedy) but because snarky humour is part of the Marvel brand, best exemplified by Tony Stark/Iron Man who’s in the same troubled-genius mould as Strange. The film is forever undermining itself, following up a portentous moment with a Dr. Strange wisecrack, and leans hard on our hero’s irreverence in the face of mystical mumbo-jumbo (even as it bases its plot on said mystical mumbo-jumbo). A deadpan librarian named Wong gets taunted with other one-word names like Bono and Beyoncé, while Strange’s introduction to Kaecilius (that’s Mads) ends up playing like a who’s-on-first routine. “What’s your name, mister?” “Doctor.” “Mr. Doctor?” “It’s Strange!” “Maybe it is, that’s not for me to judge.”
The humour is awkward, settling on the film as uneasily as the Cloak of Levitation (yet another Harry Potter-ish prop) settles on Strange’s shoulders, twitching annoyingly and deliberately spoiling the moment. Doctor Strange wants to be taken seriously and also not seriously, a tricky manoeuvre though perhaps quite possible for Marvel fans who delight in the MCU even while knowing full well it’s a corporate ploy designed to separate them from their money. This is almost a surprising movie – those surreal visuals could’ve been a real departure for the genre – yet ultimately not so surprising, just another two-hour commodity aimed at setting up a Doctor Strange cameo in some future Avengers film. “Forget everything you think you know!” our hero is grandly instructed. On second thought, don’t bother.
DIRECTED BY Scott Derrickson
STARRING Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton
US 2016 115 mins