Written by: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg
Some people may consider themselves quick learners but then there are those who enter a certain discipline and somehow almost immediately surpass everyone, even those who have dedicated their entire life to it. The protagonist of this feature does this in the most western way possible and it certainly does not help that he may be the most arrogant person to follow and root for. These issues ultimately indicate what eventually brings down Marvel’s valiant effort into mysticism, Doctor Strange.
As arrogant as one can possibly be, successful surgeon Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) gets involved in a serious accident, which hinders his ability to work. This leads him down a rabbit hole of experimental surgeries to get full access to his hands again, which finds him leaning towards mysticism and the ability to learn from the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Now, with this newfound ability, he learns about the imminent threat coming towards Earth.
For all the promise of Doctor Strange with its trippy visuals, no matter how dazzling they may be, the film cannot escape its utterly underwritten, typical, and derivative story. The ultimate description would be calling it Iron Man but with shrooms, because the bare bones of this story detail the origin story of Tony Stark. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: an arrogant and intelligent man reaches success but then suffers from a brutal accident, which humbles him, and then he learns to approach life in a different way while still being cool. The familiarity between these origin stories raises frustration because at least Stark had charisma, which allowed for the overlooking of his arrogance at times. Strange, on the other hand, has nothing remotely likable about his personality, and the idea he continues to get opportunities while continually going against the wishes of everyone around him marks shoddy storytelling.
All of this occurs as he gets trained in these mystic arts and enters an eastern practice as a white man and fairly quickly becomes the best out of all the guardians. A trope seen far too often in popular culture and it does nothing but cheaper this journey. Sure, it came from the story from the comics, but several other comic book movies have taken the production of a film as an opportunity to advance the textual stories beyond what appeared in the comics. Doctor Strange opted to keep close to its source material, except for the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. The politics behind the casting of this role can be its own discussion. This tired trope especially does not work in this film, because him surpassing literally everyone except the Ancient One only goes to inflate his ego more even if it may be impossible to believe.
The unlikable factor of Strange deters me from actually rooting for him throughout the film. It got to the point where I began to pull for Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his plot, just because Strange offered nothing except for allowing his ego to continually inflate with each victory. The film really misses the boat in establishing him as compelling because he exudes arrogance but he does not provide any intrigue in any other aspect. If yet another basic origin story needs to be old within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, then at least make the titular character somewhat interesting and not just a basic carbon copy of another character in the same series.
The calling card and real draw Doctor Strange offers are the visuals on display. The trailer shows some stunning imagery where reality gets bent in a way seen similarly in Inception. With the powers these sorcerers have, nothing became out of bounds to display how they can manipulate everything around them. For all the other issues this film has, the visuals get the job done by taking Strange to different areas and different dimensions to fight and travel. A proficient and acceptable job, which makes those clips worth seeking out, because following the story does not add much of any substance.
Even with its undoubtedly impressive visuals, everything else about Doctor Strange reaches average-at-best and its low points fall to catastrophic levels. A wholly unoriginal story with an incredibly unlikable and uninteresting character makes for this film to be an empty exercise of mysticism. Having the Marvel Cinematic Universe lean into this type of magic symbolizes an interesting divergence from their typical fare, but this story does not measure up to the exquisite reality-bending it displayed.