In one of the later-period episodes of The Simpsons, there is a rare, perfect three-second scene in which Otto, the perpetually stoned bus driver, triumphantly proclaims, "You know, they call them fingers, but I've never seen them 'fing.' " For anyone who has ever empathized with Otto's plight, Doctor Strange is here to help: If you watch this film under the influence, you are guaranteed to see your fingers "fing" – in fact, there's an entire hallucinogenic sequence where the title character does just that.
But, like most stories about drug-enhanced freak-outs, I'm getting ahead of myself without making that much sense. Let's start at the beginning, which is where Scott Derrickson's occasionally far-out film also kicks off, in that it's yet another superhero origin story courtesy of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America, etc.). Here, we're treated to the tale of how Dr. Stephen Strange, a surgeon with a god complex, becomes Doctor Strange, a sorcerer who ends up meeting various gods and isn't all that complex.
The story beats here will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Marvel movie before, especially the first Iron Man, with its hero starting off as a self-centred rich-boy jerk and ending up a self-centred rich-boy jerk with some pretty nifty super-powers. Some lessons about responsibility and sacrifice are also doled out, there's a bland mid-level villain lurking about and there's an extraordinarily chaste romance between the leading man (Benedict Cumberbatch here) and a woman who should know better (Rachel McAdams, doing a lot with little).
To offset this narrative familiarity, Derrickson (a horror veteran best-known for The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister) tries to channel the psychedelic visuals of original comic book writer-artist Steve Ditko, who conjured them up whenever Strange found himself travelling between astral planes or fighting demigods in other dimensions (which was fairly often).
At first, this strategy works handily, with Strange and his fellow mystics bouncing around cityscapes that have been twisted and turned inside-out, like kaleidoscopic M.C. Escher lithographs brought to maddening, 3D-enhanced life (here's where those pharmaceutical goods might come in handy). But after Derrickson employs this trick three or four times, it loses much of its original wit and verve – and that's for those who weren't already instantly reminded of Christopher Nolan's Inception, which imagined similar skyscraper origami, but had the decency to come up with at least half a dozen other mind-bending stylistic dreamscapes.
Typically, the Marvel-Disney movie machine is adept at producing engaging whiz-bang comic-book extravaganzas – and certainly I've been susceptible to most. But perhaps because Doctor Strange is the 14th (!) entry in the MCU, everything here feels a bit tired and worn, like a facsimile of other, better movies. By the time Strange faces off against the eternal dark being Dormammu, even the film's initially inventive finale falls apart to reveal what's basically an homage to Tom Cruise's Edge of Tomorrow (which itself owes a huge debt to Groundhog Day). No amount of phantasmagoric eye candy can offset what becomes a crushing sense of cinematic déjà vu.
If that wasn't enough, there is something even more dispiriting about Doctor Strange beyond its halfhearted visual and narrative ambitions – an issue that made a brief blip on the cultural radar when the film was first announced but has distressingly gone unheard of since: This is a movie that revels in whitewashing.
In Ditko's original comic, Strange's mentor, The Ancient One, is a mystical character of Tibetan descent. Here, Tilda Swinton plays that sorcerer as a Celtic woman, which producers initially spun as a triumph of gender-blind casting. Normally, there would be little cause to protest the casting of Swinton in anything, and fidelity to source material is often overrated. Yet Doctor Strange is a movie that takes place mostly in Nepal and Hong Kong – with only one Asian character (Benedict Wong's librarian-warrior) in sight. If Marvel was so invested in gender diversity, could they not have cast Swinton as, say, the baddie portrayed by a sleepwalking Mads Mikkelsen? She would have even made an excellent Stephen Strange – she certainly imbues her supporting role with far more life than Cumberbatch, who rocks the doctor's signature goatee but otherwise looks bored.
Whatever progressive points Disney and Marvel hoped to earn by casting Swinton should be instead viewed as deficits, especially considering how one of Strange's screenwriters, C. Robert Cargill, defended the casting back in April: "[The Ancient One] originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he's Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that's bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, 'Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We're not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.' " Cargill later went into damage-control mode, saying his opinions were his own and Marvel never spoke with him about China, but however The Ancient One became Celtic, it's hard to share anyone's enthusiasm for a movie that goes out of its way to erase an entire people from its narrative.
And so Doctor Strange, intended to be a mind-bending, rule-breaking rebuke to the squares of superhero cinema, turns out to be a rebel in name only – the textbook definition of a bad trip.