Published Nov 03, 2016We're well into the "deep cuts" portion of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the mega-franchise is now such a bona fide cash cow that it can begin taking major risks. As it did with last summer's Ant-Man, we take a look at a fresh new part of the Marvel universe — at least before it gets wrapped up in the forthcoming stream of sequels and crossovers — but just because the characters are new doesn't mean that they're any different from those we've seen before. But though it fails at originality, Doctor Strange is saved by its absurdist ending and dazzling visual effects.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays the handsome but hubristic titular neurosurgeon. When tragedy strikes Strange in the form of a car crash that derails his career, his obsessive quest for healing sends him to Kathmandu, where he ends up training with an ancient order of sorcerers and, subsequently, defending the world. It's standard superhero movie fare, made all the more trite by Strange's seemingly endless stream of talents: in the span of a single montage, he goes from one of the world's best surgeons to one of the multiverse's best sorcerers. His devastating car crash is glossed over as a mere obstacle to someone who's never portrayed as less than superhuman, even before he learns how to magic.
He's not particularly likeable, either. A compelling hero is one whose underlying humanity shines through their supernatural skill, and Strange gives us none of that. He's too perfect, and even his fatal flaw — his obsessive desire to be the greatest — doesn't garner any sympathy. Given that the first half of any superhero film uses the hero's flaw as a beacon to guide them from civilian life to rock bottom to inevitable heroism, Strange's journey feels unsatisfying because we never see him struggle long enough to feel anything for him.
Somehow though, the film manages to pull itself together, partially due to some dazzling, inventive action sequences but also its borderline absurdist climax, which offers a refreshing, deeply hilarious conclusion that laughs in the face of regular superhero tropes. Never mind that the villains are underdeveloped stand-ins for the perils of becoming drunk with power. The scene where Doctor Strange faces off against the film's big baddie with nary a spell showcases a crowning moment of Cumberbatch's performance wherein his charming bluster does all the work. It's hard to pull off bizarre, but Doctor Strange does it well.
Though not even close to unseating Guardians of the Galaxy as the MCU's irreverent breakout hit, Doctor Strange offer some fresh ideas and stunning visuals once it's done going through the motions of an origin story. It's a problem plaguing the franchise as a whole: while Marvel is able to stay sharp with their critically-lauded Netflix series, these interconnected films (this is the 14th since the franchise began in 2008) are coming out too frequently and without enough variation to be individually great; Guardians of the Galaxy is the exception that proves the rule. But while it may not stand out from the increasingly crowded Marvel-verse, it still musters a try near the end — and in a big screen theatre, that counts for something.