When Scott Derrickson auditioned for the coveted job of making Doctor Strange for Marvel Studios, he proposed a series of visual effects that would surpass Christopher Nolan’s eye-popping work in Inception. Then, he admits, came the challenge of reverse-engineering the screenplay to incorporate these wild and expansive ideas.

So when doctor Rachel McAdams says to her onetime lover Benedict Cumberbatch, “I don’t understand what’s going on,” well into the proceedings, I can definitely relate. This movie is dense in more ways than one.

One of its strongest assets is its cast, with superior actors in the leading roles: Cumberbatch as Steven Strange, the brilliant and arrogant New York surgeon whose reason for existence is cut short by a horrific car crash… Tilda Swinton as a mystic known as the Ancient One who is willing to lead him to enlightenment in Kathmandu if only he will subjugate his inflated ego… Chiwetel Ejiofor as her faithful follower and right hand man… Benedict Wong as the guardian of the library where the accumulated secrets of their sect are stored… and Mads Mikkelsen as the brilliant student gone rogue who may soon destroy the earth, one major city at a time.

Those cityscapes—London, Hong Kong, New York—are literally bent out of shape in a series of mind-boggling sequences that offer sights we’ve never seen before, in a dizzying context regarding the space-time continuum.

If all of this sounds both heady and cerebral for a comic-book movie, it is. It takes no great effort to watch Benedict Cumberbatch in a juicy leading role, but his character here is an atypical superhero who spends this origin story learning who he really is—and who he can be. It isn’t always compelling. The storytelling as he evolves from his selfish human persona to a world savior is cumbersome. No amount of visual razzle-dazzle can make up for that.

Director Derrickson, known for his successful horror films, shares screenplay credit with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill. His explanation of how he devised effects sequences first and then figured out how to make them part of a narrative makes sense when you see the lumpy finished product. The James Bond-ian title card announcing “Doctor Strange will return” indicates that Marvel has faith in this character’s staying power. I’m willing to be convinced, especially with Cumberbatch leading the way, but my reaction to this movie is mixed, at best.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024