The movie studio that reinvented the franchise model with the so called MCU (marvel cinematic universe) is back with a new origins tale. Lyndon Wells takes a closer look at Doctor Strange…
Benedict Cumberbatch plays the arrogant but brilliant genius, Dr Stephen Strange, a neurosurgeon whose hands are mangled in a car accident leaving him unable to perform surgery. As a last desperate measure, he seeks a cure outside western medicine leading him to Kathmandu, Nepal where he meets Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One who agrees to teach him in the mystical arts. At the same time her previous disillusioned student Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen) looks to unleash a mystical threat to the world.
This is Marvel’s first origins tale since the surprisingly enjoyable Ant-Man. Marvel has preferred to introduce the last few new characters like Spiderman and Black Panther in ensemble films. There is an audience weariness to the superhero origins tale, but Marvel has a winning formula and Doctor Strange doesn’t stray too far from it. Some labelled this a big risk for Marvel introducing new dimensions and magic, but it’s nowhere near as risky as Guardians of the Galaxy and to be honest not as good either.
This film is elevated by the visuals, which should easily walk away with the technical Oscar. Whilst the narrative is formulaic, predictable fun, the visuals are stunning. It is too easy to say they are Inception-inspired as there is much more depth and a psychedelic element to them. There is a great visual prologue followed by plodding exposition that explodes into spectacle when Tilda Swinton first exposes Dr Strange to the magical world. It is truly mind-bending as Strange falls through his own eye and his hands grow hands which grow hands!
From this point on the film finds its feet through training sequences and a less depressive Dr Strange finding his humour again. The comparisons with Tony Stark are inevitable with the goatee and arrogance but as librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) points out people found him funny when he was their boss. The humour is part of the standard Marvel formula, adding a lightness of touch to the tone which is not to be underestimated. The cloak of levitation steals most of the laughs, but sometimes to the detriment of tense action scenes.
Another part of the Marvel formula is attracting high quality character actors and Doctor Strange is the studio’s most impressive cast yet. Unfortunately, the supporting cast are underused compared to the titular Strange. I am big fan of Cumberbatch and no one does the arrogant, socially awkward genius better, but until the final third I was very aware I was watching the actor Benedict Cumberbatch and not Dr Strange. Tilda Swinton has a real ethereal quality as the Ancient One but has a predictable arc. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a guide to the lost Dr Strange, especially enjoying the training sequences, but his character is more about setup for future films. The librarian (Wong) has a lot of the humour and by the end of the film establishes himself an important character, but is not given enough to do. Mads Mikkelsen is an entrancing screen presence who poses a real threat as the main antagonist, but falls foul of the marvel formula becoming a collection of villainous tropes as he lacks clear motivation or characterisation. Apart from Loki, Marvel continues to struggle with its villains and Doctor Strange is no exception. The principal waste of casting is Rachel McAdams as Strange’s colleague and previous love interest who fills in some lifesaving plot points, but is criminally lacking in any real depth.
I enjoyed the film, the Marvel expectations were met and the studio was once again justified in the choice of director, Scott Derrickson, despite his horror background. Without a doubt the star performer is the visual effects. I am indifferent towards 3D, it’s rare I would recommend seeing a film this way but Doctor Strange almost demands it. This is a solid 3-star origins tale elevated to a 4-star recommendation due to its unique visual aesthetic and impressive cast list.