Following Captain America: Civil War and Ant-Man, Doctor Strange is the third Marvel film in a row that’s left me feeling vaguely unsatisfied. Not nearly as weird as publicity would have us believe, the film papers over a well-worn story template and bland characters with some kaleidoscope effects and not a lot else.
It isn’t a bad film, not in the way that, say, Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four is a bad film. It’s as polished and well-presented as you’d expect it to be. Michael Giacchino’s score brings some welcome personality to a film series that’s struggled with its soundtracks, and those kaleidoscope effects are admittedly pretty good; visually the film is exhilarating, with its folding buildings and prog rock alternate dimensions. There’s a lurid luminescence at times that could be as colourful as any Marvel film has been before.
But underneath the good looks and twangy sounds is the same hoary old storytelling, the same old tale of a white man who strolls into a culture and vocation that isn’t his own and masters both within weeks. It’s Avatar, it’s Dances With Wolves, it’s The Last Samurai; Strange doesn’t have to work hard, he’s just naturally gifted, able to leapfrog past his classmates and teachers by virtue of his own innate brilliance. Borrowing heavily from the Iron Man plot arc among others, the whole thing comes across as safe and predictable, a story where others — chiefly women and any non-white characters — must be sidelined or die just so our arrogant hero can learn childishly low levels of empathy and humility. With all of its trippy special effects and emphasis on expanded consciousness, Doctor Strange is desperately unambitious elsewhere.
As far as casting goes, everyone turns in a decent performance. Chiwetel Ejiofor is as good as he usually is, but he’s in a thankless supporting role when he and his character could, and should, have been the lead (see also: Evangeline Lily’s Hope Van Dyne of Ant-Man). Of the only two women I remember having lines, Rachel McAdams is little more than window dressing, a limp character with no life or story arc of her own, only there to be first wronged by Strange and then to later grant him forgiveness. Tilda Swinton has a larger role, but it’s mostly just as Strange’s tutor, breezily revealing the world of magic to him and happily telling him every secret.
Benedict Cumberbatch is Benedict Cumberbatch, a star power hire, some celebrity muscle to reduce the franchise dependence on Robert Downey Jr; if you like his work elsewhere you’ll probably like it here, and if you don’t, he does nothing that’s going to change your mind. The film continues the Marvel tradition of featuring forgettable villains with unclear motivation, this time with Mads Mikkelsen as — and I have to look this up — Kaecilius? Kaecilius. Much as with other great actors as forgettable villains — Christopher Eccleston as Malekith and Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser to name just two — Mikkelsen does the best with what he’s given, but he’s really just there to give Strange something to fight against.
While Doctor Strange does bring something new to the franchise — chiefly the introduction of actual, literal magic — it doesn’t do a huge amount with it that couldn’t have been done with the technology of an Iron Man or the so-advanced-it-could-be-magic science of a Thor. The film may be superficially unique but it’s so conservative in its storytelling and casting that I’d honestly like it more if it had tried something radically new and catastrophically failed. As it is, it’s just another Marvel film, and I’m saddened that a film series that genuinely did bring something new and exciting to cinema with its shared-universe concept can now feel so rote, funky effects and sitar soundtrack notwithstanding.