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  • by Jeff Beck

Doctor Strange: Visually Stunning, but Narratively Lacking

Benedict Cumberbatch in  "Doctor Strange"

Here we go yet again with another Marvel superhero origin story. Following in the footsteps of the immensely popular “Iron Man,” “Captain America: The First Avenger,” “Thor,” “The Avengers,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” there seemed to be very little of this ever-expanding universe that we hadn’t seen yet, which makes it a perfect irony that the next entry in the series would be “Doctor Strange,” a film that is largely about things that your average person doesn’t even know exist. Admittedly, this is a character I knew practically nothing about before seeing the film, but like with all of these wild superhero adventures, I approach it with an open mind in the hopes that it will be just as exciting as what we’ve (mostly) gotten before.

“Doctor Strange” tells the story of a brilliant and arrogant surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is involved in a car crash one night, practically ruining the use of his hands and bringing an end to his career. He desperately seeks out any technique that might give him back his gift, but no matter how much money he throws around, it seems quite hopeless. While at physical therapy, he is told of a man who had been in an accident that left him unable to walk, but was somehow cured under mysterious circumstances. He learns from the man himself that he was cured after a trip he took to Kamar-Taj in Nepal, which causes Strange to spend his last dollar to get himself there.

Upon arrival, he converses with The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who tells him about the astral plane, spells, and more, and while she has some initial hesitation about him learning their ways, she does eventually agree to allow it. After a time, he becomes quite skilled, flying through books on sorcery rather quickly. Eventually his curiosity brings him to a dangerous book on controlling time, a book that a former pupil, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), had recently stolen pages from in order to perform a powerful ritual. It’s up to Strange and his fellow sorcerers to stop him before he destroys Earth’s defenses and unleashes a powerful entity that wants to engulf the planet into the Dark Dimension.

Like most Marvel outings, “Doctor Strange” sets itself up for a fascinating adventure early on, particularly in its use of a down-to-Earth story of a brilliant surgeon who loses his gift in a tragic accident. Throughout the first act, the film is quite riveting, watching Strange grasp at every possible cure in desperation, only to find that his last hope lies in a far-off land. When his journey takes him to Nepal, its possibilities expand even further, opening up new worlds and dimensions for our hero to explore as he learns the mysterious art of sorcery (and, subsequently, of the global threat that Kaecilius poses).

However, after the setup, we quickly find that things become rather shaky. For starters, we have yet another film that suffers from “bland villain syndrome,” giving us the under-utilized Kaecilius, a madman who wants to live forever by summoning the evil Dormammu from the Dark Dimension. He does very little throughout the film, and leaves practically no impression, turning him into a stand-in antagonist along the lines of what we saw earlier this year in “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Star Trek Beyond.”

The film’s other main issue is that, after the first act, almost all of the remaining runtime is taken up with fights and other action sequences. This becomes rather ironic because normally it’s Marvel’s way to end their films with a big, climactic battle sequence that usually goes on too long. However, “Doctor Strange” is quite the opposite, packing all of the action in before coming to a conclusion that, strangely enough, ends with a bit of trickery as opposed to the all-out war that we’re used to seeing. With it concentrating so much on its action elements, the story sadly gets left behind as it rushes through Strange’s training (the far-more intriguing section of the film) to get to him helping to save the world.

With all of that being said, there is still a fair amount to like about the film, including its mind-bending visual effects. Throughout the entire brief 115-minute runtime, we are treated to a number of stunning visuals that include cities being twisted all around, spells of all kinds being cast, and trips to other dimensions, turning the film into nothing short of a feast for the eyes. You also have to admire the excellent performance from Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular hero. His turn as the Sorcerer Supreme give off the arrogance, desperation, confusion, disbelief, and determination that the character requires, giving us a superhero that you may not like at first, but one that you’ll probably find growing on you as the film goes on.

However, with all of its visual splendor and fine performances, you merely end up wishing that the narrative had been able to keep up after the great opening act. The writers, Jon Spaihts (“Prometheus”), Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill (“Sinister”), apparently thought that the action was more important than the storyline, but given that none of them are experienced in this genre, it stands to reason that they just went with what they thought the audience wanted. No doubt there will be many who enjoy “Doctor Strange” simply because there’s a plethora of action scenes, but for those looking for the customary satisfying narrative foundation that these films are usually set upon, unfortunately you’ll find it just a little lacking. 2.5/4 stars.

Starts tonight in theaters everywhere.

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