It’s the fourteenth outing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (I think!) and we’re now well into relatively unknown ‘second tier’ superheroes. Next on the list of ‘properties we haven’t used yet’ is Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a genius surgeon who gets inducted into a mystic cult where he’s taught to wield interdimensional powers, giving him the craziest belief system of any surgeon since Ben Carson.
Where this film stands head and shoulders above the rest of the MCU is its visuals. There are numerous sequences of unbelievable complexity which boggle the mind as much as the eyes and are far and away this film’s most enjoyable element. But the folding cityscapes and gravity-defying fight sequences borrow heavily from Inception, and like that film it’s over-reliant on exposition to make its many dimensions add up. Yet unlike Inception, it’s pure, unchallenging fantasy that never makes you think, resulting in one of the most mumboiest, jumboiest films of the year.
And the déja vu doesn’t end with Inception. Strange’s journey to Kathmandu to train with a remote group of mystics feels very close to the first half of Batman Begins, but without its brooding darkness or emotional exploration, and the film’s finale even has echoes of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. At least the fights are cooler, though, and look like what The Last Airbender could have been if it wasn’t directed by M Night Shyamalan.
Cumberbatch feels miscast as the hero. His doctor is meant to be cocky yet witty, but lacking the easy charm of a Robert Downey Jr he comes across as arrogant and unlikable. An actor of this level of intensity is better suited to villainous roles, and there’s a sense that he may have been selected to lend the film a credibility that’s missing due to its lack of serious ideas. As such it makes it hard to invest, particularly when the interdimensional conflict feels somewhat inconsequential, so far removed as it is from our world. Even the trademark Marvel humor largely falls flat, resorting to using Strange’s cloak as the comedy sidekick.
Tilda Swinton’s character is another echo of The Last Airbender, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is there as the latest in a long line of great black actors relegated to sidekick roles in Marvel films. Of the new heroes introduced by the mega-studio in the last couple of years, the deeply unsatisfying Doctor Strange is the one that seems least likely to set the box office alight and earn a sequel. Perhaps it should be re-titled Doctor Strange or: How I Learned to Stop Going to See Marvel Films.