PLOT: After his hands are destroyed in a car accident, a talented surgeon travels to Nepal in order to receive healing from a mystical sect led by the immortal Ancient One. After joining their ranks, Strange learns he's now on the front lines of a battle that spans dimensions and time itself.
REVIEW: Perhaps the most common complaint lodged against Marvel Studios current run of uber-successful Avengers movies is that they're all starting to look like one another; one film slides into the next, stylistically and tonally. It's hard to argue with that sometimes, but it's also hard to complain about, since they're all so, well, good. (Yes, currently awaiting my next Marvel check.) DOCTOR STRANGE, Scott Derrickson's attempt to bring the admittedly tricky superhero to life, is indeed a different feeling movie than most of the recent Marvel output, while still more or less following the familiar beats of an origin story. It's also one of Marvel's clunkiest movies to date.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant, egotistical NY neurosurgeon with a knack for showing up his colleagues and alienating his onetime lover Christine (Rachel McAdams). When a violent car crash obliterates his gifted hands, the bitter doctor searches high and low for someone who can fix them, ultimately finding out about an immortal being known as the Ancient One who has the power to heal bodies through mysticism (and that's just the tip of the iceberg). Finding the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her most trusted disciple Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofer), Strange agrees to train in these mystic arts, discovering not only that he can project his spirit outside of his body, but also see into other dimensions - one of which, the Mirror Dimension, resides just outside of our plane of existence.
There is a villain, of course, and in true Marvel fashion his motives are a bit ill-defined and perfunctory. Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is a former protege of the Ancient One who became disillusioned with some of her practices, forging his own sect and seeking a way to live outside of time and achieve immortality. Or something to that effect. All that matters is that he's a powerful magician who gives Strange a run for his money, especially when flanked by his several henchmen (including Scott Adkins as a particularly intimidating martial artist). Kaecilius wants to wipe out the Ancient One's order, which means destroying parts of New York (again?!), London and Hong Kong. Doctor Strange, now a slightly humbler fellow, must learn to not think of himself for once and become a hero.
As I gather the film is largely faithful to the source material, there's no doubt Derrickson and his co-writers Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill had their work cut out for them making this as narratively palatable as possible while sticking to the spiritual/magical elements that make the comics stand out from the rest of the pack. The results are mixed. The film is self-aware and not afraid to frequently point out the inherent ridiculousness of its plot, and that's crucial, since things get mighty silly sometimes. (Strange's trusty levitating cloak is an example of the filmmakers feeling free to go as broadly comedic as possible.) At the same time, much of the film's first half is so exposition-heavy that it's hard not to feel bogged down in mumbo-jumbo, with very vague rules defining the metaphysical playing field. Derrickson has a bit of a rough time establishing a solid rhythm for much of the runtime; the second act is particularly troubled as it attempts to balance out all the talking with a couple cursory fight scenes. DOCTOR STRANGE might be best approached as a "shut your brain off" experience.
DOCTOR STRANGE is a different beast than the other Marvel flicks, it must be admitted. The film indulges in some fairly trippy sequences, with varying degrees of success. Strange's first introduction to astral projection and other universes is admirably crazy (looks great in 3D too), while the several building-bending fight scenes are exciting and inventive, especially the one that opens the film. Not having as much success is a prolonged hospital battle between Strange's astral body and Adkins' similarly ghostly figure, which ends up looking like a deleted scene from THE FRIGHTENERS. The finale is a very odd stand-off between Strange and an interdimensional being known as Dormammu that honestly feels more like a gag reel than climactic battle of wills.
I think most people's reactions to the film will depend on how Cumberbatch-as-Strange strikes them. Personally, I'm not so crazy about him. As written, he's cocky and often passive-aggressive in the vein of Tony Stark; there's little doubt that Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony was the mold from which this Strange comes from. But Cumberbatch - impressive screen presence that he is - is not one for effortlessly delivering quips and wise cracks. When Strange gets sardonic (or, God help us, prone to pop culture references), the result is very stale. Overall, Cumberbatch is fine (certainly physically he's a perfect match), he just isn't a very energetic personality, and the movie seems to want him to match RDJ in the charismatic rogue department. Suffice to say, there's no competition as far as that goes. When compared to the other Marvel heroes that are already so well established on the big screen, Strange is basically a bore, very much relying on all those mystical powers to make him an engaging protagonist.
Luckily, the supporting cast is aces. The controversy regarding her casting aside, Swinton is reliably excellent as the Ancient One, feeding Strange (and us) the requisite exposition with endearing slyness. Ejiofer is also a powerful supporting player, and though his character is still a bit of a mystery to me, Mikkelsen can play an intellectual villain in his sleep at this point. Benedict Wong also provides sturdy backup as Wong, Strange's colleague in the mystic arts.