Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams and Tilda Swinton. Screenplay by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill. Directed by Scott Derrickson.

Doesn’t this stuff ever get stale to you people?

A beat-for-beat remake of the first Iron Man crossed with a Windows 95 screensaver, Doctor Strange is the fourteenth Marvel movie in eight years and one that really reveals the gears of their assembly-line productions. A shame, because it’s been directed by Scott Derrickson with an eye-popping pizazz largely missing from these prosaic-looking pictures. This past summer’s Captain America: Civil War may have been content to stage its epic battles in dimly-lit stairwells and cruddy office parks, but Doctor Strange traverses entire dimensions while bending space and time with hallucinogenic gusto. (I actually didn’t feel ripped-off after shelling out for the IMAX 3D.)

In fact, the movie probably wouldn’t be as frustrating were it not so wondrous to watch — the visual delights end up underlining a sorry screenplay’s slavish adherence to exhausted formulas.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but a filthy rich, arrogant hotshot is forced to reassess his life after a traumatic injury. He’s supported by a vaguely Eastern mentor who gets killed off early and a black guy who doesn’t get to do much even though he’s spent years training for what our protagonist just took up last week. There’s also a tremendously overqualified actress hanging around in an insultingly thin girlfriend role, just so our hero will have someone to apologize to later in the movie after he learns a few important lessons and becomes a better person.

Honestly, Iron Man wasn’t exactly a masterpiece the first time around but that one at least had the benefit of Robert Downey Jr. snarking up a storm in hungry comeback mode. As narcissistic neurosurgeon Stephen Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch pushes at the outer limits of his charisma but isn’t nearly magnetic enough to bring off the role. (But then what do I know? Women on the internet fawn all over this guy. I think he’s an okay actor who kinda looks like a foot.) Stephen flips his Lamborghini and shatters his hands, eventually journeying to Katmandu in search of experimental treatments.

The filmmakers try to dodge the source material’s queasy stereotypes by casting Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, a wizened immortal training Dr. Strange in the ways of astral projection and kung fu fighting. She’s sensational at selling all this silliness, but her presence has saddled the movie with charges of “whitewashing,” even though the alternative would’ve been a pretty offensive role to offer an old Asian guy. Frankly, I feel like the only way around these kinds of conundrums would be to just not make a Doctor Strange movie at all. However you try to spin it, in the end this is still an antiquated Tarzan fantasy of a gifted and superior white guy discovering an exotic culture and taking no time at all to become way better at it than the indigenous people he ends up rescuing.

Anyway, the fighting was fun. In the “mirror dimension” our characters can fold skylines into origami, running up the sides of buildings and dancing down stairwells out of your favorite dorm room M.C. Escher poster. (It looks a lot like that cool demo reel at the beginning of Inception when Leonardo DiCaprio showed off all the awesome powers they weren’t allowed to use again for the rest of the film.) Truth be told, I had no idea how any of this was supposed to work, as Doctor Strange is the kind of movie where people dart around during action scenes yelling arbitrary rules for what you’re watching. Picture someone jogging a few paces behind the hero, gasping for air and shouting: “Now he can only be stopped if you say ten words that begin with the letter Q!”

Okay maybe not that arbitrary, but close. There’s also some disappointingly flat work by Mads Mikkelsen as yet another boring, barely-written Marvel villain and Chiwetel Ejiofor gives what might be his first bad performance as a sidekick whose main purpose seems to be getting shown up by the star. Rachel McAdams is on hand as Pepper Potts – I mean, Christine Palmer – dutifully waiting around for our callow hero to become decent enough to deserve her. (Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for a movie that deserves Rachel McAdams.)

Credit should be given to the filmmakers finding a clever way around the numbing, third-act demolition derby that makes the endings of Marvel movies such crashing bores. A friend of mine thinks the climax is a wry commentary on the inherent repetitions of this franchise, but that’s a little more self-awareness than I’m willing to grant these guys at the moment.

Because again, if they’re smart enough to subvert that particular cliché then why are we still stuck with so many others? It’s moments like this when Doctor Strange is just good enough to make you mad that it isn’t better.


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