Doctor Strange (Scott Derrickson, 2016)
Doctor Strange, the latest in what now threatens to be an eternity of movies based on Marvel Comics characters, has a lot going for it. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), in the title role, is one of them. So is Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). And Tilda Swinton (A Bigger Splash), the controversy over her “whitewashed” casting notwithstanding. And Mads Mikkelsen (A Royal Affair). Basically, the cast is terrific. As are the visual effects, which plunge us directly into a world of fast-paced action and adventure.
Unfortunately, as lovely as these various elements may be, there is a lack of originality to the proceedings that speaks to creative fatigue of the highest order. Whether it’s the Inception-inspired building-bending cityscapes, the Nepalese hideout of a mystical fighting sect ripped straight from Batman Begins (perhaps the director should check his Christopher Nolan infatuation at the door), or the climactic final showdown that copies (granted, in a way that made me chuckle) the basic premise of Groundhog Day, Doctor Strange offer very little that is actually new. I suppose that’s where we are now, where people like me perhaps react with too much praise at the slightest departure from the same old same old (see my lavish review of Deadpool), just because we’re so tired of the repetition within the superhero genre. When will it end?
Now that that’s out of the way, I can also say that Doctor Strange is otherwise competently directed (by Scott Derrickson, who last gave us Deliver Us from Evil), and a fair amount of fun. We meet Doctor Stephen Strange, an arrogant neurosurgeon cut from the same cloth as another Marvel figure, Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), as his overweening hubris leads to an accident that damages his hands and cuts his career short. Desperate to regain control over his life, he seeks out a mysterious group he hopes will train him to master his infirmity through (he thinks) transcendental meditation. Led by “The Ancient One” (Swinton) – who, whatever her original ethnic roots in the source material, is here at least not made to be Asian, but Celtic, so there’s that – this organization opens up a world of secret powers to Strange that recalls another recent series, Harry Potter (the derivative fun never stops!). Sadly, as is the wont with all of these movies, the origin story is not enough, so we eventually need a major villain to threaten the existence of our entire planet, which brings us to the usual massive CGI carnage that drains the joy of whatever came before in its mind-numbing mayhem. Will Strange prevail? What do you think?
As these kinds of movies go, it’s perfectly enjoyable, if empty. Go see it if you that’s what you’re looking for. I won’t judge. Or, if you’re hoping for something of greater profundity, go check out Moonlight or Certain Women, instead, which also open (at least in Baltimore) this weekend. They offer the freshness that Doctor Strange, for all its derring-do, sorely lacks.