When Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige first confirmed a Doctor Strange movie was on the way, he not only pitched visuals we’d never seen in a Marvel movie before, but visuals he’d hoped would be different from any movie – ever. I’m happy to report that director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister) very much delivers on that promise. Doctor Strange is easily the studio’s most visually ambitious project to date, providing psychedelic landscapes and kaleidoscopic action set-pieces that are somehow easy to comprehend despite never having any idea which way is up. It’s a type of spectacle that feels fresh and exciting to the blockbuster world, and yet still undeniably Marvel. Given the wonderful weirdness Doctor Strange trades in, it’s a bit of a shame the story plays it safe with a tried and true origin tale, but what’s familiar is never enough to dampen what makes this movie special.
Joining the ranks of Marvel’s lovable white male leads is (the almost too perfectly cast) Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange (real name, not an alias). A brilliant and renown neurosurgeon, Strange seemingly loses everything when he gets himself into a horrific crash and irreparably cripples his hands. In a desperate quest to recover what he lost, he eventually finds himself in front of Tilda Swinton’s The Ancient One, who gives Strange his first mind-blowing taste of magic, setting him on a path to master the powerful and terrifying world of sorcery.
One thing Marvel Studios gets right is its casting, and Cumberbatch is no exception. Mellowing out his utterly self-absorbed lead in Sherlock with a need to be revered, simultaneously charming and narcissistic, Cumberbatch fits this world like a glove. He’s an instantly lovable personality, but his bout of misery after the accident and journey back from it do make him a bit of a chore for a sizable chunk of the movie. Luckily, the magically awakened Cumberbatch is plucky enough that his woe-is-me act is soon forgotten about and you’re free to watch him bounce lines off his stoic co-stars (though some bounce a little more successfully than others).
What’s interesting about Strange is that by the end of the film he is still a slave to his ego, taking the same kind of risks that got him into that accident in the first place. The difference being he’s now doing it with forces far too powerful to be fooling around with, even if it is for the greater good. One of the more interesting ideas from the comics is that when it comes to magic, everything has a cost, and this movie is already laying the groundwork for some interesting internal conflict that sees Strange facing a future where he’ll have to change what it is that makes him so brilliant, or wreak disaster on the world. And if the comics are anything to go by, that decision really could go either way.
The transition from medical marvel to mystic master could have been hard to swallow, but without too much effort the script demonstrates why Strange’s previous proficiency would translate into his new discipline. As Feige put it, in the Marvel Universe supernatural means everything from quantum mechanics to string theory to parallel dimensions, which stays true to the Thor mythos of science and magic being merely a matter of perspective. Sorcerers, therefore, are just people who have learned to ‘reprogram the code’ of the universe and can twist and tweak reality for their own benefit.
What this translates to on screen is a type of magic that is so much more gratifying than just being people in robes tossing lighting at each other. Taking cues from movies like The Matrix and Inception, it’s creativity and knowledge above all else that make you powerful in this world. In an early set-piece we see one of our heroes twist gravity 90 degrees over so a band of thieves fall onto the side of an apartment building before bending the wall they are standing on over itself like a roll of wrapping paper to try and crush them. Aside from providing an exciting new flavour of eye-candy, the action engages you cerebrally as you rapidly try to comprehend each beat, smiling with satisfaction as you contemplate each of the combatants’ moves. This creativity also lends a fun diversity to the various sorcerers’ fighting styles. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo, for example, creates artificial leverage points with his boots to run quick anti-gravity sprints through the air and get an edge in battle, while Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius warps space to close the gap on enemies and finishes them off with blades created by stretching nothingness.
Far less successful is Doctor Strange’s constricted plot, which isn’t necessarily bad, but far too linear for a film this ambitious. There’s also an odd flow of time to the story with the first half following Strange’s origin over what could either be a matter of weeks or years, and the second a mad dash to try and halt an attack from Kaecilius. The uneven structure makes it hard to chart character growth and risks losing audience interest before the film starts delivering payoff (precisely the problem I had with Man of Steel). On the other hand, seeing heroes defending against an unexpected attack without any real chance to stop and regroup is a nice change of pace from the usual superhero third act structure. The writers probably also deserve credit for finding a conclusion that came down to the hero thinking his way out of the situation rather than beating someone in a fight.
I’m also sorry to say that fans hoping Mikkelsen was going to come in and steal the show will be sorely disappointed. His character does have some depth as what is (arguably) the film’s antagonist, and of course Mads spins gold with his every second on-screen, but he’s just not a big enough part of the movie to make any real splash. The same can mostly be said of the rest of the extended cast (save Swinton’s Ancient One), for whom any real depth is reserved for later movies (Ejiofor’s Mordo, tragically, chief among them). On the bright side though, Doctor Strange does sow the seeds for a few larger villains down the track, so hopefully we’ll see something a little less one-and-done the next time round.
I know I’ve given this movie a bit of a pass on saving things for other films, but in this ecosystem of serialized story-telling I can only count building excitement for future installments as a point in Doctor Strange’s favour. The promise of what this new piece of the puzzle will bring to the world we’ve fallen in love with over the last eight years makes it easy to overlook the handful of tired tropes Marvel seems unable to escape. It might not win over comic-book movie sceptics, but the charismatic new hero and introduction of an exciting new magical edge to the MCU ensure Doctor Strange is a worthy chapter in Marvel’s never-ending superhero saga.
Also, quick props for having two of the best credit stings I’ve seen in one of these movies for a long time.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10