Doctor Strange works his magic — at least through the first two acts.
Born This Way
As far as origin stories go, Doctor Strange offers a pretty good one. The good Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, BBC’s Sherlock) is a wiz-bang surgeon who can play music trivia while performing meticulous medical operations.
He’s good and he knows it. And, as his semi-girlfriend, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams, Sherlock Holmes), notes, everything’s about him.
Some people are allowed to be assholes. Some people have flat-out earned the right. Think of people like Tony Stark and Steve Jobs. People who’ve taken control and know what they’re doing. And more importantly, they have a vision of where they want to lead things.
Well, at least Strange knows what he’s doing. So, he sorta has a pass on being an arrogant butthole.
His luxurious lifestyle – replete with an obnoxiously large collection of high-end wristwatches – comes tumbling down following a car accident caused by Strange’s own recklessness (the end credits even include a mention about the dangers of distracted driving, somewhere near the standard legalities of no animals harmed and the movie being a work of fiction). Suffering nerve damage in both hands, he’s left on the brink of financial ruin and unable to ply his craft in order to maintain the high life.
The setup is good. Strange is drawn to the mystic arts and a woman named The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, Constantine) who — rumor has it — can help heal him. He spends his last dollars on travel to Nepal and there all sorts of mind-bending trainings take place. A lot of the scene-shifting, location-bending effects are reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Inception and the psychedelic effects are fun to watch.
There’s also a sense of being able to talk about different things from the typical comic book movie. This one plays heavy with themes of the soul and mindfulness. The trick is for Doctor Strange (not Dr. Strange) to strengthen his spirit in order to heal his physical body.
That’s all fine and good and, for the most part, it works well.
Unfortunately, the third act devolves back down to pretty standard comic book fare. From the moment that drawer full of luxury watches — including one inscribed by Christine with a message to the effect “only time will tell how much I love you” — is revealed, it’s made clear time’s going to play a role in the action. And, boy, does it ever.
Strange learns how to turn back time (a shout out to Cher, one of the one-named talents he fails to rattle off in one of his humorous pop culture discussions). That ability falls in lockstep with the climactic battle against an ominous but also ambiguous bad guy, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale).
The Chosen One
Kaecilius is right out of Bad Guy Central Casting. He’s been done wrong and he wants revenge, but his plot for universal and metaphysical domination doesn’t play out to a pulse-pounding effect. It’s rather ho-hum, a bunch of CGI-heavy ho-hum.
Amid the refreshing Zen mindset and a pretty peppy sense of humor (one that mirrors the humor of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark) is a missed opportunity. This could’ve been something that takes the inspirational side of hero (and origin) stories to a whole new level. This could’ve and should’ve been one of the most quotable comic book movies.
Even the merely human Dr. Strange has some motivational mojo with lines like, “All I need is possible.” Sure, the good doctor starts to learn there’s more to life than his watch collection, but that’s not quite enough. Even his magical cloak is — magically — drawn to him, but the story needed to spend more time figuring out what makes Doctor Strange tick.