Film: Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange (2016) looks like a big, beautiful, sumptuous feast, but ultimately tastes like a nothingburger. Arrogantly striding into the MCU is Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a sharp-tongued, brilliant surgeon whose prestigious medical career is a prolonged exercise in self aggrandizement. But Strange’s ego is put to the test when a car crash shatters his hands, threatening to end everything he’s built his life around. When western medical science lets him down, he heads east, desperately chasing a spiritual cure for his condition. This leads him to Nepal and “The Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton), who runs a compound called Kamar-Taj dedicated to training sorcerors in the art of reality-warping magic. Looking to harness these powers to restore his medical prowess, Strange begins the long, slow process of mastering them, only to find out along the way that he may have a higher calling.

Even by the standards of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange is visually striking. Indeed, its spellcasting and dimension-hopping effects reach Inception-like levels of eyeball-kickery. Cumberbatch is great casting as Stephen Strange, especially physically, bringing this unique hero effectively to life— although I do wish he hadn’t been written like the second coming of Charles Emerson Winchester III. But good grief, is Marvel ever in a structural rut. Strip away the dazzling visuals and Doctor Strange supplies very little substance: another origin story, another white-savior narrative, another world-threatening cataclysm. What substance there is, meanwhile, is morally questionable subtext justifying Strange’s assholery. They seem to be going for the Tony Stark effect: a jerky but funny and likable rogue who ultimately redeems himself. But Strange’s arc in this film is a pale imitation, and the necessary likability never quite manifests. An impressive supporting cast wastes the likes of Mads Mikkelsen (standard MCU villain), Rachel McAdams (absurdly standard MCU token female character), and Chiwetel Ejiofor (somewhat interesting, if questionably handled ally). Finally, yes, Swinton’s The Ancient One is yet another egregious case of Hollywood whitewashing.

Will I enjoy seeing Doctor Strange incorporated into the greater MCU? Probably. I suspect he’s a character who will be more fun in an ensemble context. But his first solo outing is familiar MCU fare, engaging but disposable. It’s a shame Marvel won’t leverage its inexhaustible box-office clout toward diversifying its artistic vision, rather than remaining enslaved to an established blockbuster formula that becomes increasingly forgettable with each new character.

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