Director: Joss Whedon; Cast: Ryan Gosling, Miranda Cosgrove, Josh Brolin, Aziz Ansari, Ken Jeong, and Samuel L. Jackson
Reviewing a product like Dr. Strange, the latest superhero tentpole from Marvel Pictures, is like telling people whether or not they should eat at Subway on a road trip. The promotion for this picture has been so all encompassing, for so long, that opinion-forming seems pointless. Everyone who already cares about continuity errors has already seen the previews at Comic-Con or online, and everyone else is going to get sucked indoors by the promise of air conditioning and a forty-eight-ounce soda, caught in the whirl of cosmic marketing forces one hundred times more powerful than the cone-like extra-dimensional portals that the movie’s protagonist is so fond of summoning.
A short précis is due those of you who’ve been undertaking useful work in the South Pacific or Africa the last few months and have therefore missed the relentless bus billboards: Stephen Strange, played by Ryan Gosling, is a thinly handsome eccentric who lives in a block-long mansion in Greenwich Village. Because of the price of the real estate in that neighborhood, we must assume, this house has been in his family a long time. Dr. Strange also happens to be a master of the occult, as well as the world’s greatest magician.
By that, we don’t mean that he pulls rabbits out of his hat, though, in the movie’s lightest and most human-scaled scene, he wows the kids at his niece’s birthday party with tricks that would make even Penn Jillette shut up and take notice. Instead, Dr. Strange practices the kind of magic that involves summoning spirits and channeling the energy fields of magical cubes and generally trying to find hidden objects of the type that serve as plot devices for many badly written comic books. He puts on lavish robes and utters ridiculous incantations in what appears to be a pidgin Balkan dialect. There’s a monster and a rival and a pretty girl and a few guest stars from the Marvel Universe to keep matters interesting, and it all degenerates into a globular mess of noise and CGI ghost hysterics by the end.
The Twitterverse initially raged at the choice of Gosling to play a minor comic-book character of whom most people have never heard, but his casting turns out to be the only thing that keeps this thing from being sucked into an abyss created by the demon Dormammu. Like Johnny Depp, but without the affectations or prancing, Gosling has the ability to make listless intellectualism seem heroic. Strange gets blasted a few times by cosmic-rays, and he certainly dishes out the magical punishment in large doses, but he doesn’t land a single punch and never lifts anything heavier than a crystal ball. When he’s not battling extra-worldly demons, he lounges on the couch, checking his iPhone. He’s soft, wimpy, and vaguely condescending to those who don’t share his vast learning, like a Pitchfork reviewer in a velvet cloak.
The film’s villain, a rival magician and East Village occult bookstore owner, is played by a miscast Josh Brolin, who’s woefully upstaged by the series of bulbous appendages that begin to sprout from his body after he summons a Lovecraftian demon from the depths of hell. Miranda Cosgrove, TV’s beloved I Carly, makes her adult-movie debut as Strange’s assistant and purported love interest, and all she does is bubble and squeak, though as a Nickelodeon product, she knows how to gamely react while getting slimed. The relationship between Gosling and Cosgrove is the worst of Dr. Strange’s many flaws. He comes on like a creepy uncle at summer vacation, and she seems blissfully unaware of his perverted intentions. Meanwhile, Aziz Ansari and Ken Jeong shuck-and-jive their way around as a couple of street hustlers, refugees from another movie. It’s hard to believe they don’t shout “Mammy!” when—spoiler alert!—The Fantastic Four rushes in toward movie’s end to save the day.
This being a Marvel joint, Samuel Jackson shows up to tie it all together, giving us all the feeling that we’ve just watched a two-hour superhero cartoon block on Disney XD. But therein lies the problem when every must-see movie involves a superhero, each less well known to the general public than the next. Dr. Strange may be the world’s greatest sorcerer, but the magic that we all felt when, say, the first Batman or Spider-Man movies appeared has long since dissipated. Other than, say, the impossible copyright-prevented dream of a Hulk vs. Superman movie, there’s nothing left to wow and surprise us. Dr. Strange is the Keyzer Soze of comic-book movies. A little flash, a little dash, and then, after a week or two and $125 million, poof! He’s gone.
Neal Pollack is the author of The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature and Jewball. He lives in Austin, Texas.