At the core of cinema is the uniquely human desire to transcend our own bodies. The earliest films were exhibitionist displays of beauty and power — muscle-bound men performing athletic feats; graceful dancers twirling their extravagant skirts. Audiences paid to observe abilities and traits that they did not have themselves. As cinema developed, the film apparatus became one of voyeurism. We found ourselves watchers of secret gardens and passionate trysts. Capra let us in on an intimate vision of heaven; Hitchcock filled rooms with our subconscious violent and sexual desire.
The superhero film, the predominant cinematic pop-cultural force, exists on a spectrum between exhibitionism and voyeurism. These films exhibit sexual bodies performing impossible tasks of speed and strength and allow us to both act as a voyeur to humans receiving impossible abilities and feel the emotions that come with such transcendence. Consider the scene in which we jump across skyscrapers with Spider-Man in the first person, the scene when Michael B. Jordan discovers his ability to fly and cries out to the world with joy in “Chronicle,” the scene where Tony Stark brutalizes his terrorist captors with his suit of armor (can we call this particular phenomenon “Bushsploitation?”).
And on its surface, “Doctor Strange” seems to satisfy both spectrums of fantasy swimmingly. It concerns a secret cabal of magicians on the fringes of Eastern society, and a traumatized Western doctor who travels to them to heal his broken body. We watch as the laws of the unfeeling, indifferent universe are bent and broken until we understand that everything, not nothing, matters. It also presents us with the same type of power-slinging, muscle-rippling combat that so satisfies us in the same way it did in the last eight Marvel Studios films, only this time with arcane spells instead of bullets, alien powers and mutant abilities.
But Doctor Strange, as a character and an idea, simply works better on the comic book page than on the screen, and uniquely so. Google Steve Ditko’s original ’60s renditions of Strange and observe the manner in which spells are juxtaposed in side-by-side frames to be digested at the speed the reader chooses. The reader (“true believer,” as Stan Lee would put it) is allowed an enormous possibility space in which their imagination fills in the gaps of the already excellent depiction of spacetime-bending magic. But when these spells are translated to the silver screen, that possibility space between frames is filled with … more frames. 24 frames per second, to be precise. It’s the perfect number of frames to simulate reality for the audience, as many filmmakers have discovered over the years.
This process literalizes magic to an uncomfortable degree. Instead of marveling (MARVELing?) at the possibility of what real-life magic could look like, we know precisely what it would look like — slightly above-average CGI. And that’s just not as exciting, not as effective a fantasy.
That’s probably about enough film student jargon for one review. And besides, this film has just as many problems grounded in the casually observable. My follow-up research question is this: How bad do I feel for Rachel McAdams? This poor woman has had to play the most basic, vanilla girlfriend character in more films than I could possibly list here, though I shall now try: “About Time,” “Midnight in Paris,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife” (she really loves time-traveling, doesn’t she?), “The Notebook,” “The Vow,” “Aloha,” “Southpaw.” Oh, and “Doctor Strange,” where she fills maybe the least interesting superhero girlfriend role I’ve ever seen. But then again, she was really good in “Spotlight,” and she has a lot of money. My conclusion is that I feel moderately bad for Rachel McAdams.
Though “Doctor Strange” as a whole is not as vanilla as McAdams’s character (Cumberbatch’s American accent is sexy, some Nolan-esque action is good, some of the magical transcendence sequences are vaguely structurally innovative), it is merely a competent entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Actually, it fails in certain ways that most other films in the MCU don’t. The humor is flat and stale, especially compared to Joss Whedon’s rollicking jokes in “The Avengers” (a Beyoncé joke feels like a pathetic executive board-manufactured plea to hip millennial Twitter). The romance feels sexless and droll compared to the gender-neutral, broadly exploitative excitement found in “Captain America: Civil War.” And although they’re not MCU films, the superb slow-mo Quicksilver setpieces in Bryan Singer’s last two “X-Men” films wipe the floor with the climactic time-manipulation sequence in “Doctor Strange.”
“Doctor Strange” is the least effective Marvel Studios film since 2013’s “Thor: The Dark World.” “Captain America: Civil War” and even “Deadpool” are the better superhero films this year. In those films, my voyeuristic, exhibitionist fanwankery was satisfied. “Doctor Strange” left me yearning for much, much more.