Doctor Strange is an especially odd entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though not exactly for the reasons that would be expected from the perpetually trippy source material. Yes, the film sets itself apart by embracing the reality-bending possibilities inherent in the adapting the adventures of the master of the mystic arts to the big screen at a time of unparalleled CGI artistry, but that’s not precisely what I’m referring to. I don’t recall any other time when I’ve encountered a film that veers so dramatically in terms of its engagement. Doctor Strange is often dull, until the moments arrive, with a literal flick of a wrist, when it is decidedly, majestically not.
The latest figure to step forward and claim a heroic mantle in the MCU is Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), an arrogant surgeon whose hands are severely damaged in an automobile accident. When conventional medicine proves inadequate in quelling the tremors that prevent him from plying his trade, Strange seeks out alternative methods, eventually connecting with one of his hospital’s former patients (Benjamin Bratt), whose futile recovery process received a miraculous boost after traveling to the Asian country Kamar-Taj (which can be found on an actual globe about as quickly as Latveria can). There, Strange encounters the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). After some convincing, she agrees to teach Strange the magical methods she has been sharing with a shifting band of disciples, including Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong).
Strange’s goal is to return to medicine, but as he proves to be a uniquely intuitive and capable student, he gets drawn into ongoing skirmishes between good and evil. The villainous Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of the Ancient One, is bent on destroying protective sanctums across the planet in an effort to provide access to the dark demigod Dormammu (mostly a digital creation, but voiced, with significant audio disguising by Cumberbatch). The battle spans the globe. More importantly, it zips across dimensions and swirls physics like a bowl of steaming soup. Director Scott Derricksen depicts the magical mayhem with startling clarity and a popping imagination. The starting point seems to be the origami cities and turbine hallways found in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but laced with a kaleidoscopic visual logic. No retread, the set pieces spark with invention and an eagerness to dazzle. That extends to the nifty looping logic utilized to deliver the inevitable comeuppance to the big bad in the end.
Too much of the rest of the film, though, is deeply boring. This can be partially attributed to the need to take an origin story best dispatched with using six or fewer panels and expand it to near feature-length. (Remember how Tim Burton’s Batman spent about a minute on the caped crusader’s genesis? Wasn’t that nice?) What really drags the film down is a script dogged by drab dialogue and thin characterizations. The few stabs at wit are especially leaden, often coming across as screenwriter gambits rather than something one of these people would actually say. Swinton briefly livens the material with gently off-kilter line readings, but even she seems to grow disinterested as the film goes on. It’s almost as if the filmmakers were so engaged with spinning their boldest visual spells that they stitched in connective tissue of the narrative with offhand haste. The film may falter overall, but gazing at those wonders, I can’t say that I totally blame them. The trick is always more engaging than the mechanics.