Dr Strange is the latest in an ever-lengthening line of identikit Marvel projects, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous neurosurgeon-turned-magicman.
There is at least a vague attempt to put a new twist on the old familiar origin story shlock; Stephen Strange is a rich, peerless doctor who turns to a mystical temple when his hands are left irreparably damaged by a motor accident. As he learns the magical arts from Tilda Swinton’s androgynous sage (called only ‘The Ancient One’), he gradually becomes less concerned with his own recovery and more invested in the complex (read: indulgent) lore surrounding the temple’s function as a guardian of humanity. When a rogue wizard (played by Mads Mikkelsen) seeks to bring about the end of the world, it ploddingly leads Dr Strange into fully-fledged superheroism.
From the very first scene, the film draws you in with genuinely spectacular special effects. Characters’ abilities to manipulate the world around them lends itself to some impressively realised flourishes of unabashed psychedelia. The scene in which Strange is introduced to the powers of the mystical dimension, while not technically involving drugs, might just be one of cinema’s all-time great drug trips, also serving as a perfect means of conveying the immensity of the mystical world.
“the latest in an ever-lengthening line of identikit Marvel projects”
Beneath this modicum of optical invention, however, there is an insidious familiarity to Dr Strange. The absolute homogeny of Marvel’s leading men has long passed the point of excusability. In part, the problem is one of demographic equality. Their lead heroes are uniformly straight white males, with every single one of the 14 films released within its so-called ‘cinematic universe’ featuring exactly such a lead (excepting the Avengers films, of course, which amalgamate the straight, white, male leads from the existing entries and add a highly-sexualised Scarlett Johansson). Individually, this would not be a problem. Diversity is not something to be crowbarred into a story purely for its own sake; if the story someone wants to tell is the story of a heteronormative man, this is perfectly acceptable, and self-evidently appropriate. Over the course of 14 films, however, this cannot be read as anything but systematic. This unbroken pattern of underrepresenting marginalised groups becomes a conscious choice, driven as these production machines always are, by restrictive market research and creative conservatism. More than just a damaging slight on the demographics which make up a large percentage of Marvel’s audience, this repeated homogeny inevitably grows very dull.
Which brings us to the second failing in Marvel’s leading characters: their ‘personalities’. Every single hero they produce follows near-identical specifications. Dr Strange is intelligent, wise-cracking, arrogant, and more than a little emotionally distant. The same could be said of literally every one of Marvel’s other lead heroes. By steadfastly refusing to take any risks with their characters, Marvel have created a lack of characteristic diversity that stifles even the slightest hint of narrative surprise. Their switch to a focus on magical arts is not so much a new breath of life for the never-ending Marvel canon as it is a new coat of paint, the lumpy flaws of its predecessors still easily recognisable underneath.
There are good things about Dr Strange; Cumberbatch is his usual smarmy but confident self, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is enjoyable as his magical peer. At points, the tone incongruously shifts towards the comedic, with one bona fide laugh-out-loud quip. Mikkelsen is disappointing as a villain who is never really given the time of day; it is never really disguised that Marvel are playing the long game, and it is perhaps his character who suffers most. As a piece of the puzzle, Dr Strange is functionally fine. You learn who the character is, you learn why he gets his powers, and you see how he fits into the Marvel machine. The problem is you are never given a convincing reason to care.
Image: Marvel Studios