Historically, Marvel Studios films have suffered from subpar visual effects. Not bad visual effects; it's just that their CGI has a tendency to stumble at inopportune moments. So here is the first nice thing to say about Doctor Strange: the effects are absolutely stunning. Certainly the best in Marvel's history, maybe the best in any comic book movie ever made, and if not for the insurmountable bar of The Jungle Book, the best in the first ten and a quarter months of 2016.

That's a good thing, because the effects in Doctor Strange are kind of all it has. The story is pedestrian, the characters one-note, the central conflict fuzzy, and comic relief is easily the worst to have show up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since its inauguration. But the spectacle! It's not quite the Doctor Strange movie of my dreams as a fan of the comic book character - too much grey in the color palette and not enough over-the-top weirdness. Though its two major weird sequences are its very best moments, especially the first, a perhaps inadvertent (but I doubt it) homage to the "beyond the infinite" sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey that's the most off-kilter and thus delightful moment in any MCU film since the 2011 Captain America: The First Avenger found room for a campy musical number. The point, though, is that even if this is a bit drab in the color palette, the film's visuals are still beyond amazing in their own right. Any fear that this would just be Marvel's Inception can be put to rest: while involving many of the same concepts (rooms spinning and fragmenting, cities folding in on themselves), Doctor Strange brings new stuff to the table - all of the spatial warping is based on the mirror principles of a kaleidoscope, which sounds like a little thing until you're watching it - and also does the same stuff much better (as six years of evolving technology will do for you).

So with all that in mind, does the rest of it actually matter? I mean, obviously, yes. The fourth origin story in the MCU (if we allow that neither Thor nor Guardians of the Galaxy is precisely an "origin story") is the most unique, but the beats of the thing are still pretty routine by this point, all the more so if we note that much of what Doctor Strange adds to the Marvel formula is little more than a variation on Batman Begins. Nor is it anything like a graceful or well-built origin story; it makes a hash of its chronology, uses its running time inefficiently, and crucially fails to actually depict the hero who here originates learning much of anything. The idea here is that there's a genius surgeon living in New York, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who gets into car crash and suffers extreme nerve damage to his precious, precious hands. His attempt to fix this eventually leaves Western medicine for Eastern spiritualism, taking him to the secret repository of ancient wisdom Kamar-Taj, in Kathmandu. Here, he learns much about the nature of the multi-dimensional universe from a beatific woman known only as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), while studying alongside acolyte Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and librarian Wong (Benedict Wong); the three of them are largely responsible for teaching Strange how to manipulate the energies of one dimension in another, a process indistinguishable from magic.

As is common in these movies, the villain is a dark mirror of the hero: Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who learned the same wisdom at Kamar-Taj before turning evil and dedicating himself to Dormammu, a powerful being who lives in a dimension outside of time where death itself can be put on hold. As is also common, the villain is not terribly interesting, though Mikkelsen can't help but be compelling and attention-grabbing onscreen. There's also, somewhere in all of it, a woman, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who is Strange's ex, and who manages to get the most thankless role for any romantic lead in any Marvel film to date, which is quite the impressive achievement when you consider some of her predecessors.

None of this adds up to much of anything. The characters, in general, get very little to do: considering that his arc involves learning how to manipulate the fabric of the universe with his mind, it's altogether perplexing how very little Strange grows as a character: he starts out as a smug asshole prone to quipping, a clear attempt to clone Tony Stark as Robert Downey, Jr. grows too expensive for Disney to keep shelling out cash every time they want him, and that's very close to where he ends up. In some general sense, he's a touch more humble, but that's not borne out in the dialogue nor in Cumberbatch's limited performance. No other character even really has the chance to be interesting: the Ancient One and Mordo both learn things, but her arc occurs above Strange's head & thus ours, while Mordo's is being saved for the next movie. It helps that Swinton and Ejiofor are both among our most reliably fascinating actors, but even they can only do so much to flesh out material that's not there. As for the plot, it's a slurry of exposition and philosophy that ends up leaving just barely enough room for the most abject, obvious kind of "the stakes are the entire world, now go save everything by interacting with a green screen for five minutes" scriptwriting that dominates these kinds of movie.

But then, we get back to style, and honestly, the whole thing really does work on some primordial level. Director Scott Derrickson, reigned in from all his bad habits by producer Kevin Feige and the other executive, manages to slide in just a little bit of the horror imagery that has mostly made up his career, and it adds a nice level of gravity that gives Doctor Strange admirable weight (this is squandered by the wholly inapt joking tone, but think how much more trivial without the flickers of terror on the margins!). Even when it's not playing with horror movie visuals, the film still has an overall sense of underlit gloom, courtesy of cinematographer Ben Davis, that gives it a nice personality, albeit a fairly generic one. Take out the jokes, and the film gets tone right almost 100% of the time, whatever else happens. It even has the first actively strong score in Marvel movie history, with Michael Giacchino crafting a series of bright musical themes that accentuate the fantastic elements in the film with an adventurous, swashbuckling note.

It is, in short, a pleasant film to watch. Even very pleasant, when the setpieces are kicking in, which they do with some regularity. It's not a tremendously rewarding piece of storytelling, and I have my suspicions that it will prove to be unmemorable even by the standards of Marvel's overly machined popcorn movies. But it's damn cool, and that's no little thing for a grand-scale action adventure romp.

Reviews in this series
Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) | The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008) | Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010) | Thor (Branagh, 2011) | Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011) | The Avengers (Whedon, 2012) | Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013) | Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013) | Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014) | Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014) | Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015) | Ant-Man (Reed, 2015) | Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016) | Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016) | Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017) | Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts, 2017) | Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017) | Black Panther (Coogler, 2018) | Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018) | Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)