When this whole superhero universe thing was concocted by Marvel many moons ago, it all felt too good to be true. As a lifelong comic-book reader and proud aficionado of all-things geek, I was pleased as punch at the idea of a connected universe where all my favorite childhood heroes could share the screen and have awesome adventures. It started out well. Viewers got Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man (awesome), and a handful of well-known heroes, like Captain America and Thor, in some better-than-average blockbusters. Then the Avengers came: the culmination of a carefully plotted blueprint, Earth’s mightiest mortals banding together to save the world. And it was good.
After, they basically did a copy/paste of everything that worked in the first phase of films. Another “Iron Man,” another “Thor,” another “Captain America.” Everything started to feel a little less novel and a little more formulaic. The second Avengers film wore out its welcome very quickly. The Marvel movies went from a cause to celebrate to a movie-making machine that started to feel like an all-too familiar form factor. It’s been a strange experience: It finally feels as though the geeks of the world are getting everything they wished for. But, like every single story ever written about wish fulfillment, we never considered there may be a price for this infinite amount of gratification.
I hoped Marvel’s latest blockbuster, “Doctor Strange,” would help rekindle my interest in the comic-book adaptations. I’ve always been a fan of the character; a 1960’s creation of legendary artist Steve Ditko (and to a lesser degree, Stan Lee), Doctor Strange was a wise wizard dealing with interdimensional threats. In the film, he starts as a brilliant, arrogant neurosurgeon who cares little for the world around him. Status, power and admiration were his goals—that is, until a terrible accident leaves him without the use of his hands. Unable to repair the nerve damage that has ruined his life, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) turns to the east in search of nontraditional techniques to restore his broken body. It is there he encounters Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the mysterious Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).
Strange is taken on a journey through the limitless worlds parallel to our own. Those trained in the mystic arts can tap into these worlds and create portals, weapons and spells that make the impossible anything but. The first act of “Doctor Strange” seemed promising; it already felt like a much more serious Marvel film than its predecessors. Strange starts off as a patently unlikable jerk who handles the aftermath of his accident horribly. It felt like the first chance a very serious character was given time to be developed in a Marvel movie. For a few brief moments, I embraced the anticipation. Then it happened: The film became a four-quadrant crowd-pleasing movie that turned a somewhat serious tale into a tonally spastic story, which tries to be all things to all people.
All the potential is ruined by two aspects: a need for total validation from audiences and some horrible, cringe-worthy attempts at injecting humor into the story. The tonal shifts were jarring. The film tried to be dark and dramatic, and then it began to undermine a solid foundation by making terrible pop-culture jokes and physical gags which felt wildly out of place. There were moments I stared at the screen, slack-jawed aghast at the massive swings from light to dark. It was like a cinematic pendulum, swinging back and forth between high drama and low-brow yuckity yucks. I can’t remember a film that felt so inconsistent in terms of what movie it was trying to be.
By the film’s third act, even some very clever moments were wasted on a below-average movie that felt like a corporate mandate from Marvel. Does every Marvel movie have to contain a wise-cracking protagonist who makes jokes whenever situations become tense? Apparently, every hero in the Marvel universe is supposed to have the power of comedic timing. But it just doesn’t work. Cumberbatch is such a great dramatic actor, but his attempts at levity are staged with the grace of an acrobat suffering from an inner-ear disorder while working without a net. It gets real messy, real quick.
And it sucks because I can see how good this movie could have been had there not been so many attempts to broaden the audience. This movie suffers because of the formula. There is no difference between “Doctor Strange” and any other Marvel flick. There are some slicker visuals, and the final showdown is a lot more cerebral.
Really, the film is no different than “Iron Man,” “Ant-Man” or “Thor.” The cadence is the same, the characters are basically the same, and the villain is once again an inconsequential afterthought. Every villain in the Marvel movies might as well wear all white with the word “VILLAIN” scrawled across their backs. It’s no less generic than what they’re currently offering.
It’s unfortunate, too, because there is a lot of talent in this movie. I would love to see what kind of “Doctor Strange” could be made by the same people in an unbridled cinematic world—where all the edges aren’t sanded down to harmless curves. It could have been interesting.