It’s been a relatively big year for the superhero blockbuster, with Fox’s “Deadpool” successfully wearing its R rating with pride, DC’s “Batman v Superman” and “Suicide Squad” splitting critics and audiences almost as much as the 2016 Election has split the country, and Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” shaking things up in the ever-expanding franchise while adhering to some of its more formulaic ambitions. By now, it certainly seems like we’ve seen it all; I mean, where do you go after taking audiences to other worlds, pitting hero against hero, and allowing your protagonist free comedic reign by breaking the fourth wall?
It almost makes perfect sense to follow up the gritty “Civil War” with the glitzy “Doctor Strange,” Marvel’s most audacious gamble since “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The film (number fourteen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) dives into a plethora of mind-bending ideas that are propelled by equally bewildering visuals. It’s a trippy experience for sure, but one that ultimately feels inconsequential, which is anything but good news for a franchise flick with game-changing goals in mind. While its by-the-numbers plot can be forgiven because of the origin story trappings, “Doctor Strange” loses some of its power due to thinly written characters and a sense of humor that clashes with its big-brained themes and undercuts the emotional heft of the effort.
Anyone who has seen “Batman Begins” already knows the basics of the plot. A wealthy man who hits rock bottom travels east in a quest for self-healing, eventually becoming a student to the teachings of a mystical cult that prompts him to become a protector of all that is good in this world from menacing forces. Instead of a billionaire playboy, we have self-absorbed neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man so arrogant that he would rather go to a banquet in his honor than repair his fractured relationship with co-worker Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). Cumberbatch, putting on his best American accent, does all that is required of him to a remarkable extent. He seems to be having more fun than he has in previous roles, and he fits Strange’s physical aesthetic perfectly, but Cumberbatch is not given enough room to make the part truly his own.
This problem, brought on by a script with underdeveloped characters, plagues the rest of the film’s A-list cast. Tilda Swinton, whose casting as the Ancient One (an old Asian man in the comics) has rightly inspired racial controversy, does her absolute best to overcome the air of doubt she faces, imbuing the now-Celtic sage with a mysticism and gravitas that rivals Cumberbatch’s leading man chops. Chiwetel Ejiofor is tasked with a more conflicted role in Mordo, another student of the Ancient One, but whatever development he is given is shoved aside to make way for Strange’s rushed arc. In fact, everyone other than Strange seems to fade into the background because of this. The incomparable Mads Mikkelsen is wasted as Kaecilius - another bland Marvel baddie - and McAdams winds up playing the most pointless love interest in the entire series.
The MCU’s most glaring sin is made even clearer by “Doctor Strange” in its mission to add faces to the Avengers roster. Other than making damn sure we are wowed by what we see, the film, like its predecessors, devotes most of its energies to crafting a compelling protagonist. What makes this more frustrating than it should be is knowing that a good hero is formed by more than just their abilities, charisma, and, in Marvel’s case, the ability to crack wise (humor is basically a crutch for oddball superhero films at this point). Heroes are nothing without those who support them and those who oppose them, and since “Doctor Strange” seems to be so blissfully unaware of this, nearly all of the emotional heft it aims to create simply does not register. By the end of the film, Strange is supposed to have overcome his arrogance and see the world with a more open mind, but I asked myself multiple times if he truly learned anything other than how to kick ass and, in the third act, use mind over muscle.
But as with nearly every other Marvel movie, its shortcomings are balanced out by conceptual and visual stylings that never disappoint. Others will use the term “kaleidoscopic” and “Inception-esque” to describe just how dazzling the film looks, but look closely and you will also see influences from “Interstellar,” “The Matrix” (and its superior counterpart, “Dark City”), and even “Enter the Void.” In a way, the CGI extravaganzas of “Doctor Strange” fulfill the promise made by “2001: A Space Odyssey,” that absolutely nothing is out of our reach so long as it can be realized through cinema and other forms of art. Production design and costumes also stand out more than any other film of its kind in recent memory. Ideas about the flexibility of time, understanding reality and the meaning of life through our meager existence in a vast realm of dimensions, and other heady themes are the biggest that the franchise has ever tackled. In this sense, Marvel has pushed the envelope, delivering a spectacle that ranks among the franchise’s better films. Nevertheless, we’re going to have to wait a little longer for the studio to deliver a picture that is truly worthy of such a monumental vision.