2 ½ stars
As the set-up to a thousand doctor jokes goes: do you want the good news or the bad news?
The good news is: Benedict Cumberbatch is great. A slight deviation from his socially awkward genius roles, here he plays suave genius neurosurgeon Stephan Strange (Will we ever see Cumberbatch play a stoner dumbass? Please Richard Linklater, make this happen.) When a car accident results in wrecked hands, and every possible medical treatment fails, he swallows his Western medicine pride and investigates a faith healer in Nepal called the Ancient One. Played by Tilda Swinton (see the bad news, below) the Ancient One turns out to be a sorcerer. Sorcerer Supreme, in fact, of a group of magical kung fu fighters protecting the world from interdimensional bad guys. Cumberbatch does a great job in the role of novice-quickly-turned-expert sorcerer and even handles the action with aplomb, something I never expected. Also great are Rachel McAdams as his cardiac surgeon love interest and Mads Mikkelsen chewing the scenery with relish as the villain, turncoat sorcerer Kaecilius. Oh, and the gorgeous Scott Adkins pops up for an outlandish but fun fistfight with the good doctor on the Astral Plane.
So here’s the bad news: the writing really suffers and, boy, is there a lot of it. The Marvel Cinematic Universe needs you to get up-to-date on this character quickly and so there is exposition, exposition, exposition. And more exposition. And then some more. Many details don’t make sense: most of the neurosurgeons I know would never so much as drive a bike without a helmet let alone drive their car in the reckless way Strange does early in the film. Kaecilius steals pages from a dangerous black magic book in the first scene, but later the same book, as well as another supremely powerful magical artifact are shown completely unguarded in the Ancient One’s library.
And then there’s Tilda. Poor, pale, Tilda Swinton, whom I often adore, is horribly miscast here as the Ancient One. With her bald head as white as milk and her orange outfit, she looks as fearsome as a Creamsicle. You don’t have to know the backstory here to feel the awkwardness but it makes it worse to know that Disney/Marvel changed the ethnicity of the comic book character from Tibetan to Celtic in order to avoid conflict with Chinese film distributors.