Marvel is in something of a holding pattern now. Even when they do something bold and different, a branching out from their established universe of interconnected super-beings, that bold and different thing runs the risk of only further illuminating the studios’ familiar formulaic tendencies. So their latest pic, the visually vibrant origin tale Doctor Strange, introduces the mystic arts to the world of the Avengers and the result is several dazzling displays of digital wizardry and plenty of dramatically inert filler.
The overwhelming amount of unbridled imagination that powers the surrealist sorcery sequences is hugely impressive, with the effects team hurtling us through different dimensions of the multiverse where shapes shift and shifts are shaped. If that last part doesn’t make sense, then at least I have mentor and all-round superstar sorceress The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) to back me up, since she casually states early on that not everything needs to be sensible or can be explained.
That works for me, but what doesn’t work for me is how the rest of the movie (approximately 100 minutes of its 115-minute running time) just kind of floats around, employing talented actors to go through the motions amusingly enough, except without much sense of importance or meaning.
Different characters have different motivations and different goals or secrets or whatever, but none of it seems interesting or engaging enough to stand out among the fantastical imagery that represents the movie’s best opportunity to be actually, genuinely different. Doctor Strange inhabits a visual space that is new to Marvel movies, but narratively, it’s as boxed in as the rest of them.
There’s also the problem of the origin story. Marvel has sworn they’re done with them, but here’s one last one to just remind everyone how boring these things are. With superheroes completely dominating the multiplexes for the better part of a couple decades now, it’s inevitable that these stories of average people gaining extraordinary powers have become so hollowly homogenized.
So, even though armed with a few quirks and traits he can call his own, the good Doctor’s take on the formula is a tad bland. When cocky super-surgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) survives the most ludicrously cartoonish car crash a computer could possibly cook up on planet Earth, he discovers that extreme nerve damage has put his beloved hands out of commission. In his search for a miracle to restore his abilities and his previously swanky life, he travels to Kathmandu, meets the Ancient One, and learns the art of making sparky circles in thin air.
Those sparky circles, caused by the waving around of one’s hands, are pretty neat effects, though, and there’s much more to Strange’s newfound abilities than mere parlour tricks. He can enter a mirror dimension that refracts and reflects everything within it and he can warp and alter physical spaces so that whole rooms and structures are rebuilt before our eyes. This is astonishing stuff, hardly done justice by simple text descriptions, and director Scott Derrickson executes some impressive set pieces with the aid of some hugely ambitious digital artists.
But of course, these set pieces are just one of many elements required to complete an easily digestible Marvel feature. There’s also some light, forgettable humour, a love interest with nothing to do (sorry, Rachel McAdams!), a villain with a bland plan (bummer, Mads Mikkelsen!), a few building blocks for the franchise’s future, and often a late twist that’s tough to care about. It’s all here and, when combined, these pieces make a formidable foe for the grand visuals to contend with. In the end, which is actually a rather clever affair in this case, the sense of exhaustion eclipses any elation.
At the same time, 2016 has made it easier than ever to appreciate the complexities of Marvel’s successes. While their movies are merely palatable pablum for the masses, casting as wide a net as possible to pull in every corner of the different demographics and sticking rigidly to an expansion plan that is far more convincing as a corporate tool than a creative one, a Marvel pic is still, quite simply, much better than the epically excremental efforts that are DC’s Suicide Squad or the miserable maternity-minded match-up Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Even though Doctor Strange, like so many Marvel movies before it, employs very good actors to play very thin, unchallenging roles, that still beats casting a bunch of mediocre actors in your lead roles. Swinton is coolly commanding, Chiwetal Ejiofor is nobly charming, and Benedict Wong is comically deadpan. Thinking of the casting (or anything, really) in the DC movies reminds one that it could be much worse. That’s kind of the prevailing feeling that blankets Marvel’s latest. It’s just that, inevitably, the question then becomes: why can’t it be better? Even when Marvel gets Strange, they fail to exhibit any range.