Thursday Comics Hangover: Doctor Strange could be a little more strange

Yesterday was comics artist Steve Ditko’s 89th birthday, which made it an especially fitting day to watch a preview screening of Doctor Strange. Ditko was the co-creator of the Doctor Strange character, and those early comics, published in Strange Tales in the mid-1960s, were probably the purest example of Ditko’s imagination ever put to paper. Strange frequently ventured to realms where giant creatures made of spikes would crawl out of pools of liquid floating in thin air, or where thick bands of ink formed protective barriers that would keep astral forms — essentially, the souls of humans — trapped away from their bodies.

The great thing about Ditko’s illustrations of magic in Doctor Strange comics is that they were basically marginalia pulled into the story — an artist’s mindless doodles given weight and narrative meaning. They were creative id made real. And in many ways, the special effects in Doctor Strange serve the same purpose as Ditko’s illustrations. In a few instances — particularly the multicolored sphere-and-rod molecular structures of the Dark Dimensions — they look exactly like Ditko art made three-dimensional. But in every instance, the special effects aren’t intended to look realistic: they’re concepts, digital doodlings, attempts to make bizarre concepts real.

The pulpy psychedelia of the early Doctor Strange comics are served well by the effects in the Doctor Strange film. A series of fractal hands and bizarre facial contortions early on, especially, capture the stoner vibe of Ditko’s art. And even the bits that feel familiar — you’ve likely seen the kaleidoscopic cityscapes in the trailers for the film, which feel like direct lifts from the iconic city-bending scenes in Inception — still take the source material to bizarre new lengths. Speaking as someone who has been thoroughly disappointed with just about every blockbuster film this year, it turns out that digital effects can be incredible when you don’t obsess over realism. This is a movie to watch on as big a screen as possible, and IMAX 3D is recommended. Your eyes will be happily exhausted trying to take it all in.

But it’s a shame that when Doctor Strange isn’t aping Ditko’s visual style, it’s mostly a very conventional superhero origin story. The origin that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko took eight pages to tell in Strange Tales #115 is stretched out to two hours here, and the Marvel film house style is basically in full effect. The score is unmemorable, a black sidekick character with similar powers accompanies the white male hero while still staying firmly in a supporting position (Chiwetel Ejiofor has almost never felt so wasted as he does in Doctor Strange), and the villain (Mads Mikkelsen) doesn’t get to demonstrate an interior life. Further, the story stops dead for massive exposition dumps on a regular basis, and given that the magic in Doctor Strange involves lots of chatter about spirits and the meaning of life, the effect can be similar to attending an overeager new-agey church for the first time.

That said, Benedict Cumberbatch is a fine and charismatic lead who does pretty well with the American accent and the same “overconfident jerk learns humility” arc that Iron Man and Thor and Chris Pratt's Starlord in Guardians of the Galaxy followed. Rachel McAdams and Benedict Wong don’t have much to do in supporting roles, but they excel with what they’re given. In an unfortunately whitewashed role as the guru who shows Strange the ways of magic, Tilda Swinton elevates the film whenever she’s on screen.

Is Doctor Strange worth your time? I’d say absolutely, if just because it’s a delight to watch a blockbuster that finds inventive uses for CGI, rather than just rendering an endless array of explosions. It’s a likable, enthusiastic superhero movie, with all the baggage and all the entertainment that description entails.

But is Doctor Strange worthy of Steve Ditko’s art? On the whole, I’d have to say no. While the effects are marvelous, Doctor Strange fails to capture a particular alienated bitterness that almost always figures into Ditko’s work. His Strange was a wary, weird figure who didn’t connect well with normal humans. Instead, he sulked around his Greenwich Village home, wandered through weird dimensions, and spent lots of time with his head buried in books. While the look of the film is dead on, Doctor Strange could use more of Ditko’s characteristic misanthropy to distinguish the character’s otherness from the alpha-male heroes who have already come before. This Doctor Strange is not strange enough by half.

Doctor Strange opens in theaters all over Seattle tonight.