In a year packed with superhero movies ranging from the raunchy “Deadpool” to the grim “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” from the misfiring “X-Men: Apocalypse” to the wild “Suicide Squad,” Marvel came out on top with the thrilling ensemble epic “Captain America: Civil War.” But while “Doctor Strange” could have been the company’s victory lap while introducing movie audiences to a cosmic new branch of the MCU, instead, this tale of magic and world-threatening mayhem is Marvel at it’s most mediocre.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Dr. Stephen Strange, a top-notch but arrogant neurosurgeon who prizes his reputation above all else. So when a car accident leaves his masterful hands quivering and crippled, he travels to the ends of the earth and his own understanding of the universe to heal. That’s how he ends up in a curious temple, where a sorceress known only as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) trains him not only in a way for this physician to heal himself, but also as a warrior against the magical and dark forces that would gladly gobble up our world.
Mads Mikkelsen brings his eerie charms to the role of darkness’ latest figure head Kaecilius, a former student of the Ancient One who’s struck out on his own to destroy the world as we know it. Joining Strange in his fight against this evil is Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Ancient One’s apostle Mordo, Benedict Wong as a no-nonsense librarian monk, and Rachel Adams as a nurse/requisite love interest.
The story itself makes sense only in broad strokes. Try to pick out the particulars of Kaecilius’s plan, and you’ll be left with far more questions than answers. Though Mads is riveting in his creepy make-up and confident glowers, his villain goes the way of too many MCU baddies by being too vaguely realized in his emotions and backstory to have a powerful emotional impact. However, Mikkelsen’s wry humor honed over seasons of “Hannibal” comes in handy to deliver one of the film’s funniest moments, involving a nonchalant exchange that has a confused Kaecilius calling the titular hero “Mister Doctor.”
Unfortunately, this is one of the few jokes that work. Under the direction of Scott Derrickson (“Sinister”), “Doctor Strange” rejects the broader comedic moments of quips and pratfalls that the MCU has made part of its signature in favor of a dryer wit. Which would have been great, if it worked. As it was, joke after joke from Strange — including a run about people with solo names like Adele, Aristotle and Eminem — fell flat, leaving a cavernous silence in a theater where laughter was meant to be. This speaks to the central problem of “Doctor Strange”: Benedict Cumberbatch has been wildly, woefully miscast.
Yes, in full-costume he looks very much like the mystic comic hero come to life. But “Doctor Strange” makes clear that Cumberbatch doesn’t have the intense kind of innate charm that can make the character spark to audiences. Like Tony Stark, Strange is an arrogant jerk who uses his smarts and barbed sense of humor to keep others at a distance. But without that Robert Downey Jr. level of volatile charisma, Strange doesn’t come off as a bad boy with a heart of gold. He’s just an asshole. For as inventive as the visuals (a mix of “The Cell” meets “Inception” meets “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”) and action setups are, it’s hard to get invested in “Doctor Strange” when you’re cringing throughout over Strange’s piss-poor attitude.
Perhaps Cumberbatch’s portrayal could have been saved if the team of screenwriters (Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill) had given the “Sherlock” star a Watson equivalent, someone more relatable who could goose some humanity out of this seemingly selfish ass. Constrained to the expectations of solemnly spectacular martial arts movies, blandly blissful Ejiofor and Swinton deliver muted performances that dull the fantastical theatricality “Doctor Strange” could have possessed. Divorced from this mysticism plot, McAdams is a ray of warmth in this vague adventure. But she’s resigned mostly to rare hospital scenes, and confined to an underdeveloped and blunted romance. So we’re left with a new hero who leans hard on the arc of Iron Man, without the humor, charisma, or star power that’s made that Marvel movie such an enduring joy.
Now, I admire that Derrickson tried to make the MCU his own, folding in trippy and sometimes nightmarish visuals of the astral planes and Mirror Dimension. He swung for the fences, and while the CGI bodies are sometimes jarringly rubbery, it’s a dizzying delight to see how these stylish sorcerers bends the streets of London, New York and Hong Kong into M.C. Escher-inspired constructs of chaos. However, while the action scenes have great settings, the fights themselves lack zing, leaving the stakes feeling weightless.
Is it odd to say my favorite thing about “Doctor Strange” was his cape? Not just aesthetically, though, yes, Cumberbatch seemed much more the mighty sorcerer as it swirled around his slender form. But with the magic of CG, this Cloak of Levitation proves Strange’s most loyal sidekick, not only adding bravado and flying him out of dire battles, but also pointing its wearer to some conveniently placed snares, and kicking ass on its own by whipping its corners in the face of baddies. Of course, when the most memorable character in your movie is enchanted fabric, that’s not great.
All in all, “Doctor Strange” is fine, and sometimes fun. But I’ve come to expect so much more from Marvel. With “Captain America,” “Thor,” “Iron Man” and “The Avengers,” the shrewd studio casts films impeccably, bringing together an astonishing array of actors to create captivating onscreen chemistry and wonderfully larger-than-life characters. Following in the footsteps of the Batman and Spider-Man movies that came before, the MCU has been raising the bar on what audiences should demand from superhero spectacle. But sometimes, even they can’t clear it.
“Doctor Strange” opens November 4.
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