If the source material for Doctor Strange, the 14th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, suggested the company might finally be open to the surreal potential of their comics, what with sorcerers and cross-dimensional antics, the payoff is surprisingly dull, despite some frequently amusing eye-candy. The final third of last year’s Ant-Man was ultimately much trippier (and funnier), even though both films share the same problem: that the title characters are the most boring ones in their own films. This is mostly just another origin story, with brilliant, arrogant neurosurgeon Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)—whose hands are permanently damaged following an auto wreck—learning the mystical arts initially as an attempt to self-heal, but eventually setting aside his tremendous ego for the greater good of humanity. And as with most origin stories, especially ones involving a bunch of magic gobbledygook, this one’s stuffed to capacity with exposition, most of it delivered to a passive Strange ad nauseum until such time as the plot demands he actually do something.
If this is Marvel letting loose and getting weird, it’s only clearing a low bar.
There are some notable attractions here: There’s the reliably wonderful Tilda Swinton as Strange’s tutor, the Ancient One (whose infinite wisdom is hidden in her big watery eyes and who delivers info-dumps with a twist of knowing sarcasm) and there’s some admittedly nifty visuals. City skylines twist and split on all three axes, ornate rooms bloom into kaleidoscopic explosions of geometry, everything fractalized. Unfortunately, there’s also the same green-screened backdrops and chopped-up shakycam fistfights that plague most of Marvel’s action. (The real skills of DTV martial artist Scott Adkins are sadly wasted here.) A centerpiece gravity-defying brawl/chase through an endlesssly shifting Manhattan should be a highlight, but when space and geography and physics literally don’t matter there’s little to latch onto but the CGI flourish and even less to anchor the camera to anything coherent. If this is Marvel letting loose and getting weird, it’s only clearing a low bar.