“What is it? Psilocybin, LSD?” asks a panicked Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) after witnessing some seriously eldritch happenings in Marvel’s Doctor Strange. Before the film is over, you’ll find yourself wondering if you’ve been spiked with a cocktail of both. The fourteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe brings Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s “Sorcerer Supreme” to the big screen, and it’s just as gloriously whacked-out as you’d hope a film full of Dark Dimensions and Eyes of Agamotto would be – but the substance behind the high-flying fantasia underwhelms.
After a brief prologue that introduces us to Tilda Swinton’s immortal and seemingly all-knowing mage – the “Ancient One” – and her treacherous former protege Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), we meet Cumberbatch’s title character. A brilliant neurosurgeon, he has found wealth and prestige as a result of his talents but has let his success go to his head. His life is shattered when a car crash leaves him without the use of his hands, robbing him of his ability to do the job that has made him who he is. Despite the urging of his colleague and ex-lover Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) that he move on, the proud surgeon is determined that this will not be the end of his career and seeks healing by any means necessary, eventually venturing to Nepal (why yes, this is quite a lot like the first act of Batman Begins). On the streets of Kathmandu, Strange is saved from a mugging by Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a devout pupil of the Ancient One who takes the former surgeon to the fabled Kamar-Taj, the sanctum of the Ancient One and her followers. His mind is appropriately blown as he discovers that his dimension is just one of many and his soul is quite literally kicked out of his body, Strange becomes a student of the mystic arts under the Ancient One’s tutelage, who agrees to teach him under the condition that he use his newfound powers to protect the earth should it come under paranormal threat. Which, as it transpires, is going to be quite soon, as Kaecilius and his zealots emerge from the shadows intent on debasing reality as we know it.
If it’s imaginative, eye-popping spectacle you want, Doctor Strange delivers. Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil) plunges headlong into the far-flung world of mysticism and crafts some awe-inspiringly off-the-wall imagery. Butterflies hover above the earth, fingers morph into tiny hands, Cumberbatch flies into his own eyeball – and that’s just our first trip (trip being the operative word) into the Astral Plane. This is the kind of hallucinogenic majesty one would typically associate with Terrence Malick or Alejandro Jodorowsky, right at the centre of a superhero blockbuster. Even the action set-pieces are shot through with acid-trip invention, favouring folding cities to crumbling ones and out-of-body duels to fisticuffs. The climax, set against the backdrop of Hong Kong (gorgeously lensed by Ben Davis, with more than a pinch of influence from Wong Kar-Wai), is so unconventional, so unabashedly brain-frying, you leave in disbelief the studio let it stay in (between this and Civil War‘s intimate, character-driven finale, it’s safe to say Marvel have taken note of the criticism that all of their films end with a big object falling down). This is what cinema screens were built for.
It’s a shame, then, that beneath its visual delights and undeniable entertainment value, Doctor Strange is so insubstantial. The actual plot is almost shocking in terms of how conventional an origin story it is. Once Strange arrives in Kamar-Taj, the film unfolds beat-for-beat as you’d imagine, with minimal pauses for character development and no real surprises save for the images on offer. Given the obvious psychedelic and spiritual underpinnings and the obvious aesthetic ambition, it’s dispiriting that the film makes no attempt to be about anything. Narrative-wise, this is as close as Marvel has come to “just another superhero movie” since Thor 2. With almost every character existing in service of exposition – Swinton, Ejiofor and, to a lesser extent, Mikkelsen are all there to explain things, while McAdams is there to have things explained to her – the film lacks an emotional anchor in the vein of Michael Caine in Nolan’s Batman films or a quirky figure of warmth a la Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Groot. Only one first-act dialogue between McAdams and Cumberbatch and a later scene between he and Swinton provide any kind of emotional investment. The cast all bring their A-game — Cumberbatch is highly engaging and dryly witty (even if he’s hardly stretched as a tart-tongued, abrasive brainiac), Ejiofor displays a low-key intensity and brings some welcome gravitas, while Swinton is suitably otherworldly and ethereal, even if you never forget the uncomfortable racial politics surrounding her casting – but it is only thanks to their charisma that these underwritten characters register. McAdams and Mikkelsen, in particular, both give their all to the material (the former manages to bag one of the best scenes in the film) but are stuck playing the most generic superhero movie love interest and villain imaginable. The only supporting player of much substance is Benedict Wong as Kamar-Taj’s stoic librarian Wong, whose deadpan put-downs of Strange are consistently hilarious (“And to think people used to find me funny.” “Did they work for you?”) – and who gets the third act’s best comedic pay-off.
In the end, Doctor Strange is a reminder that “good” is not the opposite of “great”. Its visuals are like nothing you’ve ever seen before, and its sheer spark and momentum are such that, even though it doesn’t quite realise its potential, it’s hard to imagine anyone not being entertained by it. But with style this far-out, it isn’t hard to wish the substance wasn’t so square.