On title alone, “Doctor Strange” promises to be different. It’s not. But that’s not a liability. The movie mixes a healthy dose of snark, cool music, amazing effects and outside-the-box casting.
It’s the Marvel Studios formula (a la “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Iron Man,” “Avengers,” etc.) and director Scott Derrickson, who co-wrote the script with Jon Spaihts (“Prometheus”) and Robert Cargill (“Sinister”), doesn’t try to reinvent the genre. Soon, the by-the-numbers approach to the same good-vs.-evil, save-the-world story will jump the shark, but not this time. It’s straight-up Marvel superhero swagger.
“Doctor Strange” is a muddled blast fortified with terrific performances from some of today’s finest actors: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen and Michael Stuhlbarg.
Their presence alone lends gravitas. When Cumberbatch and Swinton dress as superheroes you must take notice. They prop up the flimsy narrative in which a hot-shot neurosurgeon (Cumberbatch) mangles his prized hands while texting and driving his Lambo. Cumberbatch takes Dr. Stephen Strange on a ride from arrogant and entitled jerk to sincere lifesaver with doses of seriousness and sarcasm. It’s a transformation you can see coming from the get-go.
But the Oscar-nominee is so confident in the role you follow willingly on a fantastical ride to the mystic realm and back. Strange’s excursion to Nepal to heal his hands is more a spiritual journey than a physical one. He’s aided by Swinton’s The Ancient One. She’s proved to be a screen chameleon before, and it’s no different here.
With a bald head and wrapped in a gold cape, she chews scenery and spits it back out. Strange is all science; she’s all sorceress, teaching him about the mystic arts and how to open doors to the multiverse with his mind and Sling Ring. Naturally, they clash in all the right metaphysical ways, until they have to defend our dimension from otherworldly evil (Mads Mikkelsen).
The screenwriters get muddled in Strange’s origin story. Once they are done with the background details, expository material and action sequences (the movie is 130 minutes, not including a pair of cut scenes after the end credits) there’s not much room left.
Beyond the platitudes (death is what makes life meaningful) and exposition on eternal life, time loops, space, matter, natural law, etc., are touches of humor that smooth the movie’s rougher edges. There are good quips about the Avengers and Wi-Fi that are spot on culturally but don’t disrupt the story flow. Marvel again does what DC Comics (“Batman V. Superman,” “Suicide Squad”) can’t — blend it all together into a cinematic amusement park ride. Now, where did I put my Cloak of Levitation?
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger. “Doctor Strange” Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton. (PG-13 for sci-fi action, violence.) Grade: B+