The Marvel Cinematic Universe – the entire superhero genre, in fact – is at a bit of a crossroads. Watching characters like Iron Man, Captain America and, soon, the third different Spider-Man this century grace the big screen has become a regular event seemingly more common than teen novel adaptations.
It’s led to a bit of an oversaturation of the same thing over and over, and Hollywood knows it.
As a result, just when we think we’ve seen it all, along comes the R-rated “Deadpool,” the fresh “Guardians of the Galaxy and the ambitious “Captain America: Civil War” to reshape how the genre can take advantage of the film medium.
The production of “Doctor Strange” takes that philosophy to heart, with excitement having been stirred about its “Inception”-influenced visuals and the introduction of Benedict Cumberbatch to the MCU.
And so we get Marvel Studio’s first feature-length debut since “Guardians,” and it turns out to be, in many ways, not your run-of-the-mill MCU flick. At this point, that’s a great thing. The action teases to be some of the most immersive we’ve seen from a superhero movie in years, and Cumberbatch is an immediately welcome addition as the selfish doctor-turned-magician.
It’s a tantalizing start to a film that, after about two hours, fails to deliver on its promise of being a totally fresh experience. It’s clearly an origin story, but in trying to be something different in terms of aesthetic, it ends up an underwhelming and familiar experience.
“Doctor Strange” is formulaic to a fault in terms of its narrative – there’s simply too much recycled material – and an overreliance on its visuals. It’s clear that it is functioning on the gamble that its special effects take a revolutionary turn. But while for the first time in a long time I found myself wishing I was watching in an IMAX theater, the film’s Rubik’s cube-on-LSD set pieces don’t necessarily mess with the plot in a seamless way.
In fact, the film explicitly introduces a pretty big loophole that essentially erases any sense of stakes that could be suggested when seeing a city literally being folded unto itself. What we see onscreen almost seems to reflect just how muddled the bigger MCU narrative has become with the addition of film’s lore.
As far as the elephant in the room, yes, the role of Brit Tilda Swinton in an environment clearly evoking an Asian aesthetic sticks out like a sore thumb. Swinton is fine as a Supreme Powerful Do-Gooder, but it feels out of place and inappropriate of Marvel Studios to utilize imagery, architecture and even other characters of Asian origin without going the full distance with arguably the film’s most important persona.
Despite its weak direction, there is some new material that “Doctor Strange” brings to the table. For a movie universe with seemingly so little attention in the prospect of finality, death is a major theme here, as is its inevitability.
Also, Strange himself is a decidedly morally ambiguous character, with a sense of arrogance that isn’t simply replaced with heroism the first time he dons the cape. Instead, the audience welcomes a more dynamic internal journey.
Dare I say it, Strange’s characterization is actually more fascinating to witness then when he engages in what amounts to not much more than combat with glorified metaphysical scepters and weapons, using the very concept of time itself to defeat a villain it doesn’t seem like he has any business even confronting just an hour and a half after first discovering his powers.
For all intents and purposes, the MCU has backed itself into a corner with “Doctor Strange,” a film that suggests powers and abilities that can bring an end to any plight the beloved Avengers might face. Here’s hoping the studio is aware of that fact, and has thought far enough ahead to make Strange’s future adventures more memorable.
Doctor Strange is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams and Benedict Wong
Directed by Scott Derrickson