A very different, totally bizarre and exciting addition to the Marvel movie universe, Doctor Strange is a mad mixture of top-drawer actors, cutting-edge special effects and a psychedelic twist on the superhero genre.
Arrogant genius and top surgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) suffers life-changing injuries to his hands in a car crash, and when western medicine fails him (i.e. he’s spent all his money), he ventures to Nepal in a desperate search for a cure. What he finds is Kamar-Taj – a society of sorcerers led by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and a new understanding of a limitless multiverse and magical power. As he begins to train as a new sorcerer, discovering how far he can push the boundaries between universes, former adherent Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) works to join the world with a horrifying, timeless dimension.
In my opinion, as a fan of the Marvel franchise, this is a brave, interesting development, director Scott Derrickson bringing weird magic and multi-dimensional madness to a sometimes straightforward superhero formula. At times, Doctor Strange wilfully goes against every Marvel stereotype, and though the main plot is ostensibly the “hero’s journey”, it is subverted. When you think the plot’s going one way it might surprise you, no more so than in the final act, almost a direct response to audience criticism of previous Marvel movies. The ability of the actors chosen as co-stars probably helps, because it feels like the three scriptwriters – Derrickson alongside sci-fi and horror writers Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill – worked harder to give them half-decent dialogue and motivations, though some jokes and scenes fall a little flat (it’s a blockbuster after all, it’s nearly a prerequisite).
A large part of why the film works so well is that we’ve only really seen magic onscreen, since the dawn of CGI, in fantasy movies – not least the Harry Potter films, which never really excited on an action basis. Doctor Strange pushes the boundaries of the effects available, with astral projection, kaleidoscopic trips and a huge set-piece in a warped Inception-style – the battles, if you can even call them that, rely more on character smarts than who has the more dangerous spell. The film does feel in a rush to get us to Nepal and the action, but it’s a swift origin story that, once it kicks into gear, doesn’t really slow down, bar a few surprisingly well-written dialogue scenes. And the conflicts, being so different, grab your attention rather than switching you off – a mean feat in a world of mundane action cinema.
For some reason, many people really don’t like Benedict Cumberbatch – I’m not sure I understand why, as it’s probably more about the similarity of the characters he’s played than his ability. What Doctor Strange gives him the opportunity to do is create a more rounded character, so while we initially see a Sherlockian egotist pre-accident, post-accident and for the remainder Strange is way more interesting, his fierce intellect propelling him forward as he learns to ‘forget what he thinks he knows’. Cumberbatch manages a pretty good US accent, and balances haughty genius and egomania beside a growing emotional core, a surprising amount of character development for a superhero I thought.
Two areas in which the film falls down are in the love interest and villain. Neither Rachel McAdams as Strange’s ex Christine Palmer, nor Mads Mikkelsen as the nefarious Kaecilius, are much more than archetypes, which is a damned shame considering both are better than that. McAdams’ doctor is our link to the real world, and while there are a few interesting scenes, I felt she was a little robbed – perhaps more time might have helped, but as it is she feels like she could have easily not been in the movie. Mikkelsen’s previous as a villain (see Hannibal or even Casino Royale) is bypassed, with the actor getting perhaps one scene to actually act and wearing bizarre eye make-up throughout. Again even just one or two more opportunities to let the actor act would have improved the character 100 percent.
Tilda Swinton brings a different energy to the stock “teacher/mentor” character, her femininity and our expectations rather hammered home by the writers at one point, but Swinton’s explanations of the multiverse, her conversations with Strange and her otherworldly androgyny are a good combination, and bring a weird arthouse feel to proceedings. Ejiofor’s conflicted Mordo is another interesting character, though again the actor is a little underserved by a lack of time onscreen. However, the British actor’s abilities aren’t wasted, Mordo a thoughtful, passionate mentor and later a contemporary of Strange, his later scenes signalling future appearances. Finally, Benedict Wong plays the librarian of Kamar-Taj, and the British actor’s stony face and sense of humour are used to great effect in some of the film’s better humour – thankfully we’ll see him again.
On the musical front, it’s taken Marvel a while to hire a properly great composer, but in Michael Giacchino they’ve nailed it at last. The main theme is unbelievably catchy (I’m still whistling it every so often) and he indulges the audience with sitars, harpsichords (yes, harpsichords) and even prog-rock guitar – all building that image of a proper psychedelic trip. And if you do see this in the cinema, stick around in the credits for the fantastic, extra prog-rock version of the theme towards the end – it’s like Pink Floyd were commissioned for a cover.
If you’re a long-time Marvel movie fan, wait throughout the credits for the obligatory extra scenes, though the first of the two (halfway through) is probably the more audience-pleasing! As you also might know, Doctor Strange is available to watch in 3D – for once, this is a decision worth considering, because the special effects actually benefit from being seen in three dimensions, particularly the Inception-style battle, and Strange’s first experiences of the multiverse.
All-in-all, you probably knew I was going to say I liked this if you’re a regular reader! But for those a little sick of superhero punch-ups, Doctor Strange offers a weird trip and extends the Marvel universe out into a “strange” new paradigm. Though one day the series is REALLY going to need to find another way to make villains and love interests more interesting.