It’s nearly impossible to fault Benedict Cumberbatch — but it’s becoming increasingly easy to criticize Marvel Studios, LLC, as it continues to make the same superhero movie over and over again.
Marvel’s latest film, “Doctor Strange,” features Cumberbatch in the lead role alongside Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. While the acting was on point, Marvel just can’t seem to divorce bad storytelling from pleasing the masses. Marvel still thinks it needs to stuff films full of dizzying action sequences and dazzling special effects in order to make a profit, and as long as moviegoers are appeased by flashy fight scenes and melodramatic, world-threatening catastrophes, Marvel will continue to make bad movies.
“Doctor Strange” focuses on an insufferably egotistical brain surgeon, Dr. Stephen Strange, (Cumberbatch) who seeks miracle healing after his hands are ruined in a car accident. Strange lashes out against those who love him most, including his onetime lover and fellow surgeon, Dr. Christine Palmer (McAdams). He then travels to Southeast Asia to seek mystical healing, where he is taken in by the Kamar-Taj, a mysterious society that practices what appears to be some form of Buddhism combined with sorcery. The sorcerers — led by their seemingly immortal leader, the Ancient One (Swinton) — promise Strange he can be healed if he learns their ways.
At this point in the plot, the film starts to get interesting, but director Scott Derrickson yanks the story in another direction: Strange is needed to fight a rebellious sorcerer who is trying to bring eternal death to Earth. Derrickson squeezes in action scene after action scene, pushing the plot along with contrived character development until the anticlimactic finale. Instead of expounding on the religious sorcery hybrid practiced by the sorcerers of Kamar-Taj, Derrickson shoots long scenes depicting sorcerers racing through mind-bending alternate realities, practicing a magic that the viewer barely understands. Instead of fleshing out Strange’s character arc, Derrickson burdens Cumberbatch with the role of a reluctant hero without providing enough dialogue and plot to develop his character and then to feasibly sacrifice himself to save the world.
That said, Cumberbatch delivers an enjoyable performance. The opening scenes are a treat: viewers watch the arrogant but talented brain surgeon conduct surgery while choosing different pop songs to suit his mood. In another scene, Strange rebukes a fellow surgeon for falsely declaring a man dead, then insists on removing a bullet from the man’s brain without automated assistance. Strange’s arrogance, cloaked by dry humor, is exemplary of Cumberbatch’s acting skills: he knows he’s the best, he knows he’s right, and he’ll put you in your place while making you laugh.
Marvel does a few things well in “Doctor Strange”: the film balances laughable moments with serious subject matter, and the actors manage this symmetry well. Strange’s levitating red cloak has its own mischievous personality, stealing scenes left and right as it saves Strange’s life and pokes at his ego. Strange banters with pretty much every other character, but his interactions with Palmer are the most entertaining:
“I went to a place called Kamar-Taj and talked to someone called the Ancient One,” he tells her after returning to her as a cloaked superhero-sorcerer.
Palmer says, “Oh, so you joined a cult.”
“No, I didn’t. No, well, not exactly. They did teach me to tap into powers I never even knew existed,” he says.
“Yeah, that sounds like a cult,” she replies.
“It’s not a cult.”
“Well, that’s what a cultist would say.”
After Strange opens a portal in the hospital closet to return to the New York Sanctum, a broom clatters to the floor, prompting Palmer to jump and scream. It’s a cute moment, countering the deep, contemplative death scene that follows, but it also leaves the viewer wishing McAdams had more screen time.
“Doctor Strange” certainly has redeeming moments, but the film’s basic plot is the same as every other Marvel movie, but with less character development and a lack of thematic exploration. But the Marvel formula still brings in the crowds and the ticket sales: “Doctor Strange” was the No. 1 film during its opening weekend and scored the biggest IMAX opening domestically and internationally to date, beating 2014’s “Interstellar.”
That means that for now, Marvel will continue to make superhero movies as it always has: with light thematic elements, glittering visuals, and decent acting. But for those of us who want to see something a little deeper and grittier, it might be time to turn to “The Dark Knight” trilogy and other more substantive superhero films from DC Comics, Inc.