I don’t want to know how a superhero became a superhero ever again.
Marvel has been doing expectation-shatteringly well with its Cinematic Universe. No matter how tired you are of the comic book movie deluge that is sure to eventually drown out mainstream Hollywood, you cannot deny that most of Marvel’s body of work ranges from good to great. They’ve recruited talented filmmakers and finally gotten to the point where their best films are hero team-ups and civil wars.
So it’s all the more lackluster that “Doctor Strange” is another standard origin story, complete with story beats that we’ve seen a million times before and character tropes ripped straight from other Marvel movies and their inspirations. The movie’s saving grace is its exceptional visual effect work, which imbues the familiar tale with a more electric character than any of its characters.
Writer/director Scott Derrickson — the horror artist behind passable scare machines like “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “Sinister” — may have seemed like an odd choice to helm “Doctor Strange,” but ultimately it turns out he’s the safest pick. This is the Marvel that got rid of Edgar Wright, after all: they pick filmmakers that will do a good job without shaking up the moneymaking formula. “Doctor Strange” has much in common with your typical horror film: it’s nearly the same as everything else in its genre, but it sure looks pretty.
Doctor Strange himself is derivative. He’s written like a magical redux of Tony Stark: self-assured to the point of arrogance, genius with potential to do more, wry sense of humor, initially wary of the responsibility that comes with his newfound powers. There’s even a romantic interest (Rachel McAdams, who deserves more screen time in the Universe’s future) trying to bring out the best in him.
Fine, give us a character whose arc is exactly the same as Stark’s if you squint your eyes, but did the screenplay really have to toss in the same dialogue for Strange too? All of the Doctor’s lines would feel perfectly at home emanating from Iron Man’s armor.
Benedict Cumberbatch is charming in the role, but the unoriginal screenplay doesn’t help him bring anything new to the performance. A similar fate befalls Mads Mikkelsen, who does the villain-y thing his parents must have known he was destined for when they named him that. Indie queen Tilda Swinton steals the show with her tough but tender portrayal of the Ancient One. You’d almost forget that her character was whitewashed.
The plot does suffer from origin story fever, but it’s briskly paced and dryly funny enough (thanks to its idiosyncratic source material) to be consistently entertaining. That doesn’t forgive its conventionality though. A master of an ancient art trains our title character — who starts out as the furthest thing from what he is meant to become — to defeat a former student who will stop at nothing to retrieve the master’s most precious artifact?
Yeah, this is Kung Fu Panda starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark as Doctor Strange. At least the final battle is refreshingly inventive, trading bombast for smarts and wit.
Rising above it all is “Doctor Strange’s” special effects. The world contortions and spell battles are nothing short of spellbinding, thanks to groundbreaking visual design that both echoes the film’s themes and spirals viewers into a spacey LSD-esque paradise. Strange’s introduction to mystical powers is particularly breathtaking.
But without the visual trickery, this would be a mediocre superhero movie. I’m tired of writing that sentence.
★★★ (3 out of 5)