If a secondary Marvel character like Deadpool could anchor a megahit, perhaps lightning can strike a second time with “Doctor Strange,” a contemporary comic-book sorcerer who was introduced in print back in 1963 and been around, on and off, since then without ever achieving really iconic status even in fandom. Certainly the company juggernaut has gone all out to introduce him on the screen, enlisting a slew of first-rate actors and expending big bucks on the production, which includes scads of visual effects—some of them fairly distinctive—to add punch to the tale of a surgeon-turned-supreme-magician. It’s a pity that they couldn’t come up with a script as imaginative as the casting, which has already elicited fanboy complaints about Tilda Swinton assuming the part of Strange’s mentor, The Ancient One, presented in the comics as an old Asian man.
Scott Derrickson’s movie, however, turns out to be, despite the new visual trappings, a standard origins tale, accompanied by the usual quota of insider jokes that Marvel now regularly adds to its assembly-line output (a stray mention of Beyonce, anyone?). Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is introduced as an extremely talented, and equally arrogant, neurosurgeon who enjoys humiliating colleagues like Dr. West (Michael Stuhlbarg, wasted) about their inadequacies, although he is much friendlier to fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams, who brings more spunk to the role than it deserves), whose offer to join her ER staff he rejects because he wants more reputation-building cases.
It’s while discussing such potentially publicity-getting patients by phone while speeding along in his car that he has a terrible accident that leaves his hands severely impaired. Frustrated at the slow pace of rehabilitation, he seeks out Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt, in a single-scene walk-on), who had an amazing recovery from a back injury. He directs Strange to Kathmandu, where Pangborn was taught the techniques that restored his ability to walk at a peculiar monastery.
There Strange encounters a warrior named Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor, solid but unremarkable), who refers him to his teacher, the supreme sorcerer called The Ancient One (Swinton), who initially refuses to train the skeptical, dismissive fellow in the mystical arts but then takes him on as a pupil. Strange proves dedicated, especially when it comes to reading volumes from the library presided over by Wong (Benedict Wong, providing some comic relief), but is still dissatisfied over the pace of his progress.
The Ancient One speeds things up, however, just as her monkish order comes under serious attack from Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former acolyte of hers now engaged in a mission to open earth to the Dark Dimension and its master Dormammu, who is apparently some sort of devourer of planets and solar systems. Strange and Mordo will have to confront him, in the process learning some unwelcome truths about The Ancient One, before Strange, who has taken her place as the chief sorcerer protecting the three Sanctums of earth (located in New York, London and Hong Kong) that close off the realm from invasion by other dimensions, has to face off alone against Dormammu.
The hero’s magical powers—which eventually come to include creating patterns of light that serve as shields and weapons, fashioning portals that allow him to skip from one locale to another, flying through the air and manipulating time—are the equivalent of the superpowers of other Marvel stars. Most of the effects that stem from them are fairly familiar flashes of CGI luminosity, except for scenes in which buildings are made to collapse into one another like houses of cards, forming different shapes and obstacles to leap around or avoid like the inner workings of a kaleidoscope. It’s a nifty effect, not entirely new (see “Inception”) but unfortunately an overused one here. The first time it happens one might be awed; the fifth or sixth, you’re likely to have become blasé.
If the effects pale over the two-hour running-time, so does the plot. Kaecilius’ scheme is pretty rote stuff, and Mikkelsen, a fine actor when given the opportunity, is reduced to playing him as a one-note baddie. (The role does, however, give him a trifecta of villainy: he was a James Bond antagonist in “Casino Royale,” Hannibal Lecter on television, and now a Marvel nemesis.) And when the film reaches its ultimate face-off, it turns out to rest on Strange’s tinkering with time in a fashion that’s no less feeble than the conclusion of Richard Donner’s first “Superman” movie (though, to be fair, it does allow for a montage of different death scenes). Dormammu’s appearance, moreover, is a distinct letdown: he looks like something that might have come out of the woebegone “Green Lantern” movie, and might make you think with a smile of the “Great Big Head” mentioned so often in John Lithgow’s “3rd Rock from the Sun” before he showed up in the guise of William Shatner.
One might have expected Cumberbatch and Swinton to bring something special to the table, but they don’t, apart from their expert elocution. Cumberbatch does manage to make Strange a suavely preening fellow, but not much more, while Swinton, whom you might hope would be deliciously eccentric, plays the role straight, with deadening effect. (It doesn’t help that the script requires her to deliver great reams of New Agey gobbledegook while standing as still as a statue.) In fact, the best performance is a pure CGI one, by Strange’s red cape, which has a mind of its own.
As usual in these Marvel pictures, the picture is expertly made from a technical standpoint, with the cutting-edge effects of the gyrating buildings complemented by Ben Davis’ fine widescreen cinematography, which is enhanced by the 3D effects even when the editing (by Wyatt Smith and Sabrina Plisco) fails to keep the topography of the action ideally clear. Michael Giacchino contributes a score that’s more eclectic than usual (there are some choral interjections and what sound like synthesizer interjections) but is still very bombastic.
“Doctor Strange” will probably make a lot of money—Marvel is certainly banking on that, since the two teasers in the credits suggest that the sorcerer is going to be folded into the company’s repertory team as well as having a sequel of his own—but the fact is that it’s not strange enough; it has plenty of CGI magic effects, but lacks the cinematic magic that would set it apart from the other franchises in Marvel’s increasingly crowded stable.