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?”