Like all comic book interpretations of gainful employment, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) isn’t merely a neurosurgeon but the most perceptive neurosurgeon in the universe. That is, before he even develops any superpowers. Following a car accident that causes extensive damage to Strange’s hands (but oddly not his legs, his arms, or his spine), he reaches out to various colleagues for a medical solution. Then, he turns to mystics in Nepal, including The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who believes that Dr. Strange can help them defeat a fallen sorcerer named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who plots to destroy the universe. There go my lunch plans.
A quick study, Strange masters the art of sorcery inside of what feels like a week due to the director’s roughshod pacing. Protecting the Earth from extradimensional evil are three temples located in major cities, one of which comes under siege by Kaecilius and his associates. This incident thrusts Strange into the Role He Doesn’t Want To Play.
Sorcerers can cross dimensions, instantaneously travel great distances and make the world topsy-turvy in a literal sense. Consequently, while director Scott Derrickson attempts to rationalize whitewashed casting (the aforementioned Swinton in a role obviously fit for Michelle Yeoh, an actual Asian martial artist), that’s merely a symptom of his bigger problem: a complete lack of imagination. Marvel and DC’s comic book films invariably fall into an action/comic genre. Comics are a medium, not a genre. They’ve spanned many different genres in print. One of the few standouts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is THE WINTER SOLDIER. It was designed as a political thriller, inspired in part by 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR and THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD.
Just as quickly as they branched, they returned to formula in subsequent offerings. Some will argue this was due to economics but with international box office, video on demand, and other channels of distribution, every Marvel movie has been an overwhelming success. They’re the biggest game in town, yet they refuse to take risks and drive better tastes. I don’t believe for one second that Marvel couldn’t explore comedy, horror, drama, or any subgenre and turn a profit on it. If grabbing the most cash possible is their only worry, they need only adjust production budgets accordingly.
If nothing else, the picture has a sense of humor. Otherwise, DOCTOR STRANGE would be a dull walk down short-term memory lane, recycling their origin story formula: Affluent white guy gets knocked down a peg or two, gets rebuked by his girlfriend (Rachel McAdams) when he needs her support the most, has an epiphany at the hands of an (inexplicably white) eastern master, and re-emerges as a superhero: Doctor Peculiar.