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.