The existence of magic, of mortal beings able to wield powers far beyond the laws of logic and physics, has baffled and fascinated humanity for generations. It has been used as everything from a legitimate vocation, to a scapegoat for tragic events or illness, to a method of healing, to financially lucrative entertainment. As the author Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", highlighting the relationship between the realm of the rational and the unknown, and how similar they are. Even in today's world where magic is typically disregarded, there still exists a distinction between a "magician" and an "illusionist". A magician is someone who practices "true" magic, which depending on your beliefs is either a form of miracle or some advanced practice most just don't understand yet. An illusionist, however, is a showman, the folks you'll see headlining shows in Las Vegas for weeks on end who employ slight of hand and other methods to do tricks for entertainment. In Marvel Studios' Doctor Strange, the 14th film in their "Cinematic Universe" franchise, the titular character is a magician, a sorcerer, capable of awe inspiring and life saving magic and more. The film around him, however, is more illusion than true magic, a gorgeous spectacle that sadly falls short of the depth that Marvel's output has had up to now.
If there's an element of the derivative about Doctor Strange, the character and the film, the blame can start with the creation of the character by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko back in the 60s during the birth of the Marvel (comics) Age, as Mr. Lee in particular was, as a writer, very much of the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mold. So the film, as all of Marvel Studios' films have, translates the character from his origins faithfully, despite this. Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is Tony Stark gone to med school instead of engineering college, a neurosurgeon as brilliant as he is arrogant. Like Stark, a sudden tragedy (in this case, a car crash) causes an injury that will change Strange's life irrevocably. Unlike Stark, however, Strange doesn't undergo an immediate change of heart following his tragedy, and instead obsesses over the nerve damage in his hands, causing him to look to every method of healing possible so he can resume his career in medicine. The search leads him to the doors of Kamar-Taj, a mystical place in (near? adjacent to?) Katmandu where the "Sorcerer Supreme" of Earth, The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) practices and teaches the Mystical Arts, while defending the Earth from mystical threats. She, along with fellow sorcerers Wong (Benedict Wong) and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) instruct Strange in the ways of sorcery, while warning him of the dangers of being led astray as rogue sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikklesen) has, tempted by a demon in the Dark Dimension to do nefarious deeds to the Earth. Along the way, Strange finds his inner selflessness, stepping up to the world's defense when it needs him.
So, Doctor Strange is yet another superhero origin story film, and yet on paper that shouldn't be worrying, as Marvel have been able to weave the typical rote nature and structure of those tales into refreshingly new experiences so many times before. This time around, however, the formula doesn't work so well, for the simple fact that the characters are so woefully underdeveloped. Strange himself is a combination of Tony Stark and Gregory House, a man whose talent and genius give him a massive ego that he's able to overcome, yet the film never gives a compelling reason why. Strange goes from lamenting the murder of a foe in battle to mourning a fallen comrade to sacrificing himself for the good of the Earth, with very little emotional connective tissue to tie it together, besides the feeling that it's time for the part in the story where this is supposed to happen. Wong is a noble and faithful sidekick (whether to Strange himself or the sorcerers in general) and isn't drawn any deeper, while Strange's ex-and maybe current love interest (Rachel McAdams) is nothing more than that, a pretty girl for Strange to argue, flirt, and smooch with. Many people have pointed out Marvel's problem with their villainous characters, and Kaecilius is the worst symptom of this problem yet, a character who exists only to look creepy and menacing, and pay lip service to the idea that he may have any deeper justifiable reasons for his actions. I mean "lip service" literally: his motivations are tossed off in a few lines of dialogue, by a completely different character, and the backstory he has does not show up in the film itself but rather in a tie-in comic book. When a story relies on ancillary material to explain itself, that's especially lazy storytelling.
The two characters with the most depth, and consequently the best performances in the film, are Ejiofor's Mordo and Swinton's Ancient One. Other than (arguably) Strange, Mordo is the character with an actual arc in the film, going from a steadfast believer in the order of sorcerers to a disillusioned man, unsure of his place in the universe. At every turn Ejiofor imbues Mordo with a passion and intensity for his actions, allowing the audience to believe that he believes what he does is justified, no matter what. The same goes for Swinton's Ancient, one of the coolest characters in the MCU, as well as being one of the most problematic. Marvel have typically been amazing with their casting choices, and if anything was going to distract or undercut the troublesome Asian stereotype that the character of The Ancient One was on the page, it's a performance as electric and delightful as Swinton's, who takes the hoary old Zen master tropes and turns them on their head by being a person who's almost unclassifiable. She's mysterious and serene, trustworthy yet duplicitous, and, of course, kicks ass. To be fair, all the actors in the film kick ass, and each one, without fail, is delightful and comedic, as is Marvel's house style.
It's that comedic house style that ultimately hurts the film, as it saturates the story to the point of being a distraction, robbing it of any dramatic stakes whatsoever. There's an immense amount of world building in the film that the script by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill cannot contain or handle, and at every turn a joke or quip is made to deflect and undercut the out there ideas of the sorcery world. Derrickson, who also directed the film, is clearly a fan of Christopher Nolan's Inception, using that film both as a visual and plot inspiration. While Strange rivals Inception in the visual department, it lacks the conviction that Nolan's script had when explaining his wacky rules of dream share logic. Strange says magic is real, it's weird, there's bad stuff out there and that's it. Any concepts that may be raised that could fuel some drama or provide some stakes are instantly glossed over by either a joke, a cute artifact (such as a gem that manipulates time or a sentient cloak that is clearly the child of Aladdin's magic carpet) or both. Some credit has to be given to the originality of the third act, another area that Marvel's been criticized for, as most of their previous films have ended with a large scale battle where X person or persons have to be stopped from using Y to do Z, and so on. The first big breaking of that mold came in this summer's superior Captain America: Civil War, whereby the final battle was one of personal betrayal and secrets come to light, rather than the destruction of several city blocks. In Strange, the gimmick is that our heroes arrive after the city-leveling battle has already happened, and through magic means are able to rebuild (literally) that outcome. Unfortunately, despite the cleverness of the premise, the sequence is too frantic to allow the audience to enjoy it beyond a fleeting visual of things moving in reverse, as the scene quickly moves to yet another final battle between Strange and the demon of the Dark Dimension, the Dread Dormammu. Again, in place of understandable stakes or real menace coming from this character introduced at the 11th hour, there's a clever structure with a magic device and a lot of cutesy quips from Cumberbatch, ending in a truce that is quickly followed by an end credit roll. The most compelling scenes in the film are the post credit scenes, which is yet another troubling sign that Marvel is too invested in planning out their future rather than focusing on the story at hand.
Where Doctor Strange excels, and why so many who see the film will give it a pass, is its masterful visual spectacle, taking the design (if not the intelligence) from Nolan's Inception and blending it with the final act of 2001 as well as some classic Steve Ditko illustrations to create a kaleidoscope of eye candy. Warrior sorcerers turn entire cities into rotating funhouse tunnels, leaping through the air as the rules of gravity and physics cease to apply, cloaks choke out bad guys by themselves, mirror shards are used as spears, and time moves in reverse while others move forward, fighting on the side of a building while it's rebuilding itself. It's the first movie Marvel has made, and indeed the first movie in a few years, that actually demands to be seen in 3D, as the depth effects highlight just how much extraordinary detail is laid within these bravura sequences. There is one massive letdown even in the visual effects, however, and that is the Dark Dimension and Dormammu himself. Seeing the realm of an actual demon (albeit the Marvel comics universe version of a demon) directed by a filmmaker known for his work in the horror genre (including Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose) seemed like a slam dunk going in, so the fact that it's a massive failure is even more crushing. Marvel haven't previously shown themselves to shy away from the more goofy visual concepts of their characters (let's all remember that Groot is a talking tree), so why they decided to move away from a cloaked being with a flaming head and hands and make Dormammu into a giant floating, rippling purple head thingy is baffling. The sub-PlayStation 2 graphics of the demon from 1997's Spawn movie would have been more welcome.
All in all, Doctor Strange is a huge missed opportunity for Marvel, both for their Cinematic Universe and the superhero genre in general. Their previous films have all been wildly successful due to the genres they ape and in some cases transcend: Captain America: The First Avenger's war adventure film, Guardians of the Galaxy's space opera, Ant-Man's swinging heist film and so on. Strange is not quite a superhero film, nor a kung fu film, or a sci-fi mind bender, or a horror fantasy, and isn't a successful amalgam of any of those. I expect that after another viewing or two (hey, I sold my soul to Marvel fandom long ago, sue me) my opinion might change, or at least soften. For now, it's fine, and enjoyable, and does the trick (both figuratively and literally), being as pleasantly distracting as any good illusion. But it's mere slight of hand, aspiring yet failing to attain true magic status.