I’ve never really warmed to Doctor Strange. Despite the trippy visuals and thoughtful thematic climax, it feels like a movie bereft of fresh ideas and coherent narrative flow. Rather than stopping at any point and saying, “This character is too much like Tony Stark, and even though that may be how it is in the comics, we need to find a different angle on the arrogant genius who learns humility,” the film just plods along while crying out, “But this time, there’s magic!” Although it has a murderer’s row of acting talent, the film doesn’t feature a single memorable performance and the stakes feel oddly low. The jokes don’t work, the hero is bland, and even the set pieces are a bit tedious.
If we work our way down through the elements in Doctor Strange that fail to take root, we have to start with the hero. Marvel has always succeeded in casting well and creating compelling characters, but with Strange they fall short. It’s not that the studio is forbidden from telling the story of arrogance-to-humility ever again, but with Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the film feels like it doesn’t even find an angle on his journey until halfway through. Until that point, he’s just an angry genius who loses the use of his hands and wants a way to get them back. Once he arrives at Kamar-Taj, he seems to completely forget that the reason he wanted his hands back was so that he could be a doctor again. Then it’s all about learning the mystic arts, and while his little trip through space and time is certainly impressive, you’ve deprived your protagonist of his motivation and simply dropped in a new one.
It doesn’t help that Strange is rarely presented with opportunity for humility or change. He remains a genius and hasn’t really learned anything from his tragedy, so he just voraciously jumps into trying to amass all the knowledge he can. And hey, wouldn’t you know it, he becomes the best sorcerer there is because he has an eidetic memory and studies really hard. Not only is that difficult to visualize, but it also makes for a fairly flat journey. It’s not like in Iron Man where Tony goes through different iterations of the Iron Man armor and we can see his growth alongside his invention. Stephen Strange is following the path set by others and yet rarely does he seem to grasp that others may know better than him.
That’s the fine line Doctor Strange can never quite seem to figure out how to walk: how do you say, “This person is exceptional enough that he will be our hero and save the world?” and also, “He’s humble enough to be a different person at the end of our story than he was at the beginning,”? The movie never really finds an answer until it kind of stumbles upon “Doctors are trying to defeat death and Strange has to accept endless death as a solution to defeating Dormammu.” That’s not bad, but it’s certainly not where the film begins and as a resolution it feels half-developed because the first half of the movie is Strange just being a jerk who learns magic.
The film isn’t helped by the little amount of kindness in Cumberbatch’s performance or how similar Strange is to other characters the actor has played before. If you want to see Benedict Cumberbatch play an arrogant, quick-witted genius, you could just watch Sherlock or The Imitation Game, and the only thing that makes this film different is that Cumberbatch sports an American accent, which makes his acid-tongued retorts far less charming. He’s not helped by the fact that his character doesn’t seem to make positive connections with anyone at Kamar-Taj or really anyone else in the world. After his entire journey is over, could you honestly say you feel there’s a deep bond between Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong)? Or Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor)? Or The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton)? Or even Christine, featuring Rachel McAdams being wasted in yet another thankless role?