Held together by countless terabytes of computer effects, fortune cookie wisdom, and the backing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange is an origin story that’s high on origin yet low on story. It features a hero you don’t particularly like, a villain who’s not well defined, and ephemeral stakes that are hard to embrace.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an arrogant, skilled neurosurgeon who performs medical miracles by day, then dons designer suits and Jaeger-LeCoultre wristwatches after hours. His life of ease changes dramatically after he drives his Lamborghini off a cliff, incurring nerve damage in both hands that threatens to end his career. When traditional medicine doesn’t cure his trembles, Strange gets a tip from a former paraplegic (Benjamin Bratt) who learned to walk again after a trip to Kathmandu.
The irony is that a movie trumpeting itself as “unlike anything you’ve ever seen” contains elements of a bunch of movies you’ve probably seen. In Nepal, Strange meets Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an ally to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton and her bald cap), an androgynous Celtic mystic who greets Strange by hurling him across an approximation of the astral plane from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Soon the Ancient One is playing Morpheus to Strange’s Neo. Or Ra's al Ghul to Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins. Or Pai Mei to Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill. Or ...
Strange and his fellow sorcerers are charged with protecting Earth from extra-dimensional baddies, particularly fallen zealot Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former pupil of the Ancient One now serving the all-powerful Dormammu, lord of the Dark Dimension. The ensuing magical melees basically involve a lot of Inception-style FX, culminating in a climactic clash between Strange and Dormammu that echoes Edge of Tomorrow. Strange sports something called the Eye of Agamotto to help protect a trio of Sanctums located around the world that shield it from … oh no, did somebody mention an Infinity Stone, too?
Rachel McAdams is underused as the long-suffering gal pal, essentially filling the Natalie Portman part from Thor. It’s telling that the character with the most personality is Strange’s feisty magic cape. Director Scott Derrickson was tasked with the arduous job of crafting an accessible character and narrative while remaining faithful to both the source comic book and the MCU ethos. The ill-fitting result is a kaleidoscope of sober Eastern mysticism and religion coupled with Tony Stark-style wisecracks. Only in the film’s two end-credits sequences does Doctor Strange dip a toe into the wider MCU and set the stage for future developments. The nearly two hours before that is a dutiful stand-alone that is truly more style than substance.