Superhero movies are rather silly by design, and some are designed sillier than others. To date, Marvel Studios, the foremost purveyor of the genre, has shown a remarkable knack for getting away with a great deal of silliness. Back in 2011, Thor, a movie about an intergalactic Norseman swinging a hammer seemed like a (rainbow) bridge too far. Instead, the husky Asgardian has become a central building block of the Marvelverse. Two years ago, Guardians of the Galaxy, which featured a talking raccoon and an ambulatory tree, appeared a potential disaster in the making. But no, the movie turned out to be a gas, and its outré flora and fauna were the best things about it.
Alas, with Dr. Strange the Marvel magic seems largely to have run out—which is unfortunate, given the movie’s titular protagonist is himself a magician.
For those unfamiliar with the saga of Stephen Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), he was a world-class neurosurgeon with a world-sized ego until an automobile accident left his precious hands damaged beyond medical repair. So he sets off for the Himalayas, where a bald mystic called the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, demonstrably non-Asian) teaches him that his hands are good for more than just wielding a scalpel. Specifically, he learns spells to transport himself across space and between dimensions; to conjure weapons out of thin air; to stop and reverse time; and (of course) to zap bad guys.
The principal bad guy in Dr. Strange is a former acolyte of the Ancient One named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who, in keeping with Marvel tradition—see, for example, the wildly forgettable Thor foes Laufey the Frost Giant and Malekith the Dark Elf—is a rather dull figure. Alas, this time around there’s no Loki lurking around to bail us out.
Though the cast of Dr. Strange is first-rate—in addition to Cumberbatch, Swinton and Mikkelsen, it features Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, and Michael Stuhlbarg—no one in it is given terribly much to do. There’s a sorely underdramatized tension among the sorcerors over whether or not it is a bad thing to extend one’s lifespan by tapping energies from the “Dark Dimension.” (When, at one point, Ejiofor’s character solemnly intones “You have no idea the things I’ve done,” the only possible response is no, no we don’t.) McAdams is given the thankless role of Strange’s sometimes-girlfriend and E.R. helpmeet. Benedict Wong is intended to get laughs by being unflappably Asian. And pay close attention or you may miss Stuhlbarg’s character altogether.
Equally disappointing is Cumberbatch’s central turn as Dr.—don’t you dare call him “mister”!—Strange. Affecting an American accent, the actor seems to have swallowed his voice altogether, denying himself the use of one of cinema’s genuinely remarkable instruments. (Was the accent really necessary? I mean, c’mon, the guy’s a sorcerer. You don’t get any more British-y than that.) Moreover—and perhaps relatedly—Cumberbatch simply doesn’t seem to be having much fun with the role.
Indeed, Marvel seems to have forgotten its own operating theory (demonstrated most tangibly in Guardians) that the sillier a superhero movie’s premise, the more it needs to have a healthy sense of humor. Apart from a few overbroad comic flourishes (Dr. Strange’s “levitation cloak” has a playful personality that will be familiar to anyone who remembers the flying carpet in Aladdin), the film is among the darkest, dourest offerings of the Marvelverse, and it’s not a look that suits the studio (or, to judge from recent DC Comics-Warner Bros. collaborations, any studio). This is presumably in large part due to director Scott Derrickson, who cut his teeth directing horror films (Hellraiser: Inferno, Sinister) and a shockingly inert remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still.
The movie does have its moments. But for every clever line—as when Strange asks the Ancient One “You’re talking about cellular regeneration … Is that why you’re working here without an authorizing medical board?”—there are multiple clunkers, such as the ham-fisted tie-in, “While heroes like the Avengers defend the world against physical threats, we defend it against mystical ones,” or Strange’s awkwardly triumphant boast, “The mirror dimension! You can’t affect the real world in here. Who’s laughing now, asshole?”
In addition to Thor, there are echoes of Hellboy (which is never a bad thing) and of Green Lantern (which always is). And it bears noting that the special effects are top-flight, in particular when the dueling sorcerers are bending time-space upon one another, as if our world were merely an elaborate pop-up book whose pages could be flipped at will. But over time even the fight sequences and Dali-esque visions of alternate dimensions develop a stale sameness.
Cumberbatch is a terrific actor, and perhaps now that the arduous chore of establishing his super-backstory is out of the way, he’ll have a little more fun in future outings as Stephen Strange. But his debut is, at best, a minor Marvel.