As expected, the plot follows a straightforward hero's journey, albeit one on a unique playground. In training montages or climactic fights, Doctor Strange isn't surprising with its story beats but it is wowing the viewer with its imagery and its cleverness. Director Scott Derrickson, a vet of the horror genre, is allowed to paint on a multi-million dollar canvas limited only by his imagination, and in the film's highlights, he goes for it. Strange's awakening, the various fight scenes, particularly inter-dimensional chases that start with the city-folding of Inception and add layer after layer, and dispatching the big bad at the end each take unique, mind-bending paths towards expected results. Marvel surely understands that many of its entries are structurally identical, and with more origin stories coming, handing the reins to visionaries like Derrickson is a surefire way to at least keep their films from becoming stale, at least in the near term.
If Doctor Strange had the characters or the dialogue to match its trippy visuals, it would be one of Marvel's better outings. Alas, there's little here that impresses despite the wealth of accolades bestowed on the high-caliber actors in the cast. Strange is very similar to Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark, a wealthy playboy and master of his domain brought low by injury and resurrected by a twist on his former life. Cumberbatch has no problem with the imperiousness both men share, but the impishness of the character is less interesting than Stark's self-loathing and sarcastic deflection. Ejiofor serves as a rule-following philosophical counterpoint to the more spontaneous Strange, and doesn't get much more of an opportunity beyond that. Mikkelson is cashing a paycheck as one more unmemorable Marvel villain. In the non-magic-practicing world back at the hospital, Rachel McAdams is yet another actress wasted as a love interest to the super-powered center of the film, while Michael Stuhlbarg has even less to do as a doctor Strange delights in humiliating. The bright spot is Swinton, beautifully, if controversially, cast as Strange's mentor. A bald expert eternally calm and casually all-knowing, she has the ability to make the most fantastical dialogue sound credible, and that ability is put to great use.
Doctor Strange is a delicious confection, appealing in the moment but forgettable in the wake of so many other superhero films. Spectacle, which it has in spades, can only get it so far. It engages in what's becoming a cardinal sin for superhero films, where the entire planet is at stake despite the presence of more Marvel films in the hopper. Why can't the sorcerers deal with a more local issue, something that would maybe make it easier for the looming villains of Avengers sequels to attack earth down the road, instead of looming space clouds reminiscent of laughable superhero films like Fantastic Four: Rise of Silver Surfer and The Green Lantern? Doctor Strange is stuck in the middle of Marvel's heap, though the paths it opens for the future of the franchise are more interesting than the vast majority of the characters within Derrickson's visually impressive but emotionally inert film. C+