Marvel conjures up narratively-stunted, visually stunning superhero flick with “Doctor Strange”

Justin Jones

“Doctor Strange” takes the superhero genre on a bizarre and awesome trip into mysticism. With beautiful action, abstract expeditions into the cosmos and a satisfying ending, the film is almost a success.

The Marvel cinematic universe has a history with hugely popular movies that can be great, incoherent or somewhere in between. Director Scott Derrickson’s “Doctor Strange” lands closer to “great” than “incoherent,” but makes enough mistakes to keep it from achieving excellence.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange, a brilliant yet arrogant man who is unfortunately the intersection of his own Sherlock Holmes and Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. He suffers a terrible, but visually awe-inducing, car accident that cripples his hands, causing him to embark on a journey in search of a cure that leads him to The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). From there, he learns magic and heals his hands as he unintentionally becomes entangled in a centuries-long war between darkness and light.

If the plot sounds familiar, it is. It borrows from Marvel’s own “Iron Man,” from “Batman Begins,” and the origin of Mads Mikkelsen’s villainous
Kaecilius is reminiscent of “Kung Fu Panda.” The direction and action sequences are enough to overcome the film’s lack of originality, but it still takes a toll on the otherwise visually innovative film.

The biggest issues are with the narrative, which is unoriginal and full of unearned plot beats. Doctor Strange‘s character does not have much of an arc, magically transitioning from self-centered doctor to magician to heroic sorcerer. These character shifts are spontaneous and baseless, and even his most substantial change-of-heart takes place off-screen.

Though the plot disappoints, “Doctor Strange” is visually stunning. When Strange is first “awakened,” he is sent on a trippy, fantastic expedition through the “multiverse.” The scene is part “2001: A Space Odyssey,” part the quantum realm sequence from “Ant-Man,” but with an unconventional, creative spin. 

Action sequences are further improved by Derrickson’s touch, with rotating gravity, time reversal and folding realities. “Doctor Strange” opens with a battle scene in which ambiguous villains and heroes fight on the side of a building as it and the surrounding city rotate and fold in on themselves like a moving M.C. Escher painting. The scene is a rare case of 3-D actually improving a film, establishing different planes of action and adding much-needed clarity to scenes that could have become mindless mayhem. 

As the movie progresses, it grows more daring and willing to jump into unabashed sci-fi fantasy, and the film is better off for it. Scenes of Strange and Mordo bickering while running across upside down buildings, fighting evil ninjas are far more entertaining than dull moments of an arrogant genius who only wants to help himself.

The conclusion to “Doctor Strange” is potentially the film’s greatest asset. Superhero films frequently end with a large object crashing into the ground as a beam of light streams into the sky, evidenced by “The Avengers,” “Man of Steel,” and even supposed parody film “Deadpool.” Derrickson wisely avoids this, and has Strange resolve the film’s conflict by outwitting the villain rather than blowing everything up.

Marvel has crafted another hit with “Doctor Strange.” Although the film’s misses are significant, they do not overwhelm when it hits the bullseye.