Disney clearly has a fetish for manning the bellows to raise old properties teetering on the edge of irrelevance, especially to the tune of spending several hundred million dollars on them. Often (John Carter, The Lone Ranger), this resurrection quickly mutates into a séance: the properties remain dead, and the best we can do is ask the characters why Disney is affronting them by not allowing them to rest in peace. Yet Disney’s most recent such semi-forgotten property carries the Marvel brand, which means commercial success for once. At least this skeleton back-from-the-dead has a little visual meat on its bones and a couple of fascinatingly splintered compositions, but that isn’t enough to truly salvage the nefarious acolyte of science and nerd-cred bolster Dr. Steven Strange. If the prospect of one of the world’s most monolithic and voluminous corporations resurrecting a wiry little swashbuckling B-comic from the ‘70s raises any false alarms in your head, well, consider yourself intelligent. Lest you think that the title is a harbinger of things to come, Marvel’s one-size-fits-all aesthetic is as plastic and only superficially strange as ever in this new film. In breathing life into a product from the Bronze Age of comic-dom, Marvel continues to package and primp their creation in service of creating something masquerading as malignant, dangerous, and different. And something ultimately too benign to last past the 90-minute mark.
Repetition being not so much Marvel’s folly as its brand name, in this case the primary victim of identity theft is the product line’s own shining star, Iron Man; protagonist Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a virtual copy-paste, or a smudged facsimile, of Tony Stark. But the casualties in this case extend beyond the culprit’s own products, and Marvel’s oil slick of misdemeanors include not only self-canonization and arson but stealing secrets from their main competitor: the narrative through-line in this case is Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins done up in a supernatural grin. And if that wasn’t enough, Marvel decided to laugh in DC’s face by stealing visual effects from their poster-child filmmaker’s other most heralded project: Inception. Since the limits of mainstream blockbuster filmmaking dictate that “interdimensional play” must externalize as “upside down buildings”, it’s a good thing you can’t copyright cities folding in on themselves.
The only thing more riotously mangled than the visuals is the scatterbrained screenplay, and not for the better in the latter’s case. Watching another tired riff on a soul-searching lost white man is timid stuff nowadays, especially when that man is Dr. Strange, a smug quasi-malcontent played by Benedict Cumberbatch indulging in all of Hollywood’s worst type-casting principles and accomplishing nothing other than what he’s told to. Another origin story, as is often the case, the most intriguing material is relegated to the sidelines as the film is busy taking the scenic route to self-indulgent kaleidoscopic extravagance. His life-giving hands irreparably damaged in an accident, Strange undergoes a (not really) personal crisis as he confronts the limits of Western medicine and dabbles in Eastern mysticism, studying under the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, weaponizing her androgyny in another quasi-human role, succeeding at the old type-casting game where Cumberbatch has thus far faltered). All the while, the story of fellow student/teacher Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is obviously a more fulfilling arc. But because the film is reticent to explore that character’s theoretical depth (it’s too busy throwing depth charges into the sky in hopes of mangling buildings), I’ll refrain as well.
And, of course, there’s the villainous Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), another pseudo-psychological hold over from the late nineteenth century’s fetish for evil doubles and inverted consciousness, embodying the evil in Dr. Strange so that Marvel can continue to play dress up as a serious film series concerned with the negative potential in its characters. Of course, absolving those characters of their sins is de rigueur by this point as well. So rather than truly abstracting the rulebook to bring back the warped whimsy and the bygone mayhem of blockbusters of old (dating all the way back to Melies), the screenplay (by director Scott Derrickson along with partners in crime Jon Spaihts and C Robert Cargill) is mostly content to rely on the ‘00s tent-pole textbook for fossil fuel.
Fuel that occasionally, intermittently, bursts through the dubious narrative thematics and hushed “end of the world” ruminations to take a pavement saw to geographical contiguity and spatial logic and formally convulse in the kind of feverish pop-art Bacchanalia the film promises on the tin. If this is yet another tall tale of an emboldened white man testing his mettle in a vigorously Otherized Orient playground, at least this one tasks his royal whiteness with hurling an ounce or two of that strangeness back into the West for good measure. A true mordant cinematic sorcerer enters the fray when the film traces (and enlarges) the all-hands-on-deck scene from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, that earlier film being a modernist grenade to sanity that Doctor Strange only wishes it could be. To say the least for multimillionaires, if the film tends to prefer leviathans to nimble strangeness when all is said and done, the pure power of budget is able to feint toward true imaginative agility when the buildings tumble just a smidge more than you expect they might. If you’re along for the ride, your head will hopefully tilt with them.
Almost to the point where your neck comes off its hinge and your head unmoors from its body, but of course a Marvel work – even one that deals in skyscrapers and is itself one – would never strand you that high up in the sky with no oxygen to breathe. It would never truly endanger you that way, let alone enlighten your mind, or indulge your curiosity. For a film that superficially engenders itself to destabilize the artificial human obelisks that make up city life – totems to humanity’s stabilizing might – the totemic budget of the film only stabilizes the script in sedimented blockbuster tradition. It’s just plain not strange enough. The much-vaunted trippiness of the production is cordoned off into a jittery, giddy sequence or two. When the film ought to be letting the needle of traditional superhero storytelling snag on this product’s various odd edges and twists of Cain, the Marvel machine is always there hammering away the potential digressions, as sleek and chrome as Thor’s Mjolnir and forged in the most fastidious and unforgiving fires of all: corporate America.
So temper expectations. Doctor Strange is no wrench hurled into the cogs of capitalist blockbuster entertainment. Sure, you can almost detect the smirk on the film’s face when it’s in the sandbox treating a city as a demon child might fondle baby’s first pitchfork, but don’t expect the machinery of cinema tremble. You might feel a quiver for a luminescent moment or two – when Scott Derrickson lets his horror flag fly or Michael Giacchino’s swaggering score kicks in, but if Doctor Strange wants to be the Loki to the Avenger’s Odin when it comes to mischief-making, this is an imp at best. For a work about weirdness in the abstract, the physical film just isn’t psychosomatic enough to register as something meaningfully infected with what it preaches.
Most depressingly, the film signals a larger trend for Marvel, sliding comfortably into the Ant-Man register or the “just enough” paradigm of compromised variation. Doctor Strange boasts “just enough” differentiation from its corporate peers to convince audiences that Marvel is on to something new without ever threatening to really ignite a forest fire or whip up those tumbleweeds of style into a full-on sandstorm. (And when a blockbuster achieves the admirable latter goal – witness Speed Racer, lost in its own kinetic frenzy one week after Iron Man was released – it is rewarded with commercial and critical failure). Neither satanic summoning nor circus of amusements. Doctor Strange takes cues more from its honorary “doctor” and not its surname “strange”: whatever hysteria that could have flourished into a beautiful mess of a manic, volatile, violating blockbuster was prescribed a few hundred million dollars and the potential to make a fortune if only it medicates itself and calms itself down. Much like irony and satire, the upticks in weirdness feel like a form of self-absolution carted out as an alibi to keep from having to truly think outside of the box. Although technically more bedeviling than, say, Captain America: Civil War, the minor flickers of delirium seem even more hollow because the film’s potential is so much greater. If in search of something to thin the membrane between fever dream and hopelessly sane product, better luck next time.
Score: 6/10 (The tone of the review sounds more acerbic I know, but it’s not a bad film so much as a disappointing one, or at this point a wholly expected one, that is mostly indifferently pleasing and intermittently alluring).