2.5 stars (out of 4)
And now, a five-alarm warning to the Cumberbitches of the world:
Yes, Benedict Cumberbatch — the ever-talented thespian, Oscar nominee and sophisticated small-screen Sherlock — brings his magic to this latest Marvel offering. There's a but. Despite his alluring powers, he can’t save an overly convoluted film that relies on a galaxy of derivative 3-D special-effect tricks.
He plays Stephen Strange, an arrogant neurosurgeon who’s essentially the Tony Stark of the medical field. (He has an American accent, too.) His freewheeling life becomes upended after a car wreck nearly kills him. Though that handsome mug remains intact (phew), his amazing hands are a mangled mess. Western medicine offers no help, so, on a tip from a patient, a desperate Dr. Strange travels east. Way east. As in, the mountains of Kathmandu.
That’s where he meets a bald spiritual guru referred to as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). She informs the doc that she has the ability to cure him — “I can reconnect your spirit to heal the body.” When he scoffs at her, she sends his soul careening all over the world while his body lies still in the temple. Strange is sold.
Still there? Hope so, because the central plot is about to kick in, and it’s not nearly as accessible as an awkward teen boy in Queens learning how to sling webs from his hands to fight the bad guys. (See ya next summer, Spider-Man!) Dr. Strange will not only get his damaged hands in working order, he’s going to study astrophysics to become a sorcerer and warrior. The medicine man will then use his newfound mystical and teleporting powers to try to defeat an evil god in the dark dimension, as well as a former student (Mads Mikkelsen) gone rogue. Joining him in the fight: The Ancient One’s apostle (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a librarian monk (Benedict Wong).
Maybe a first-tier and culturally ingrained superhero such as Superman or The Hulk could get away with an info-packed origin story. In the great big comic book pantheon, however, Dr. Strange is B-list at best. The average moviegoer can’t be expected to fully absorb a slew of rules and characters and Easter eggs that only a Comic-Con lifer would comprehend. The mystical lingo flies so quickly that it’s tempting to space out and wonder how a British woman like Swinton got cast in a role clearly intended for an Asian man.
When the story starts to overwhelm, the visuals provide some welcome eye candy. This is a world in which the heroes bend buildings and twist them on their sides. Thanks to Strange’s special necklace (the Eye of Agamotto), he learns how to loop time. These powers are on display in the climactic sequence, when people in Hong Kong are frozen in their movements for a prolonged period while the sorcerers fight around them. The hocus-pocus is stunning, though the coolest imagery has already been seen in films like Inception. When special effects don't seem so special, it dulls the impact. For that matter, even Zack Morris stopped time in Saved By the Bell.
There are other (and far less expensive) familiar touches on the screen as well. As always, the hero’s sassy-hot love interest is flummoxed by her man’s attitude. (At least Rachel McAdams, who plays the doc’s ex-girlfriend, gives her requisite role a much-needed dose of humanity.) Random pop-culture references are scattered throughout the proceedings. Familiar hit songs get air time. And don’t forget about the cryptic post-credit scene! Earlier this year, Deadpool spoofed all these comic book adaptation details. These screenwriters should have taken notes and adjusted accordingly.
Unlike Mr. Pool, nobody is having much fun here — save for the doctor’s Cloak of Levitation that has its own devilish personality and can whisk him out of scary situations. Otherwise, the flick is joyless. And perhaps that’s the strangest part of all.
(Doctor Strange opens Friday, November 4.)
Sign up now for the Us Weekly newsletter to get breaking celebrity news, hot pics and more delivered straight to your inbox!