Sometimes Doctor Strange is downright delightful. In terms of style, it is different enough from the Marvel Cinematic Universe so that it effectively answers the criticism that all the films look the same. Director Scott Derrickson takes his hero to some wacky places, since this is more of a fantasy than a traditional comic book film. But for all its inventiveness, there are things about Doctor Strange that are frustratingly familiar. Not all superheroes require an origin story, and yet this one labors yet another one for most of its run-time. Derrickson squanders a talented actress with the thankless love interest role. And for a film that mostly takes place in Nepal – when it’s on Earth, anyway – there is icky Orientalism that would make most Everest climbers blush.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is kind of an asshole, and he knows it. He’s a brilliant surgeon who picks patients to maximize his celebrity, and negs his former flame Christine (Rachel McAdams) even though she’s no longer interested. On the way to a charity event, Strange is in a terrible car accident, and his hands suffer profound nerve damage. Western medicine has its limits, so he travels to Nepal as a last resort. It does not take long for him to stumble onto Kamar-Taj, a wizard school that’s run by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). She sees potential in Strange, so she systematically strips him of his ego, teaching him how to bend time and space to his will. Mads Mikkelsen plays Kaecilius, The Ancient One’s former pupil who has gone rogue. He has a plan that involves harnessing dark power from another dimension, and to be honest, I doubt he could even explain what he wants to do with it.
Admittedly, there is a reason for an protracted origin story, and a strict adherence to formula. Derrickson and his screenwriters need familiarity since his visual style and dimension-traversing narrative is so bizarre. There is a long hallucinatory sequence where The Ancient One shows Strange the depth of her power, and it includes crisp CGI psychedelics that are as immersive as they are unsettling. Kaecilius’ main power is how he can manipulate architecture, so there are gorgeous sequences where buildings cascade into impossible fractals (the attention to detail here is impressive and daunting). This is where Doctor Strange is a delight: Derrickson wants to show us something new, and he does not take it too seriously.
Another surprising about Doctor Strange is how funny it is. Cumberbatch plays Strange a lot like Sherlock Holmes: arrogant, indifferent to humanity, and fiendishly smart (the only major difference is a bad American accent). The biggest laughs come from the minor characters: Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong pop up as The Ancient One’s disciples, and they have a curmudgeonly way of stripping Strange of his dignity. The script by Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, and C. Robert Cargill juxtaposes one-liners with magic mumbo jumbo, so the exposition dumb comes with some sugar, too.
In some respects, Swinton is a perfect choice for The Ancient One. She already carries an otherworldly aura, not only when she plays a wizard, and Derrickson mines her charisma for all it’s worth. The problem is Swinton’s dialogue, which is full of New Age horseshit with a slight preference for Eastern ideas. Sure, she has no problem selling it, yet its tenor repeatedly made me aware of how few Asian actors actually appear in Doctor Strange. Aside from Hollywood failing at inclusivity, again, her whiteness makes every Asian extra all the more glaring. It is an unfortunate distraction, since so much of the film is about immersion. Marvel and production documentaries emphasize how they filmed in the real Nepal, but it might as well have been a Hollywood soundstage.
Doctor Strange ends with action, as it must, but Derrickson has little flair for it. There are many fight scenes where Strange, Kaecilius, and the others conjure glistening weapons through sheer will; it’s a step above mind bullets, although they’re about as cheesy and clumsily directed. Instead, Doctor Strange is the sort of comic book adaptation where you might bring your skeptical friend. There is imagery in it that is incredibly unusual for mainstream entertainment, let alone comic books, and Marvel has the budget to realize it. Still, the best thing about Doctor Strange is how Derrickson lets the climax unfold. Instead of a huge sacrifice or a big battle, Strange outsmarts his opponent in a hilarious way. A clever, resourceful hero will always be more interesting than one who relies on their hulking muscles.