As we now roll into Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe we are pulled to the beginning of one character’s story. Doctor Strange is Marvel’s step back to delivering an origin story for a new superhero but in some ways this film is a giant leap forward in universe building. It’s hard to fathom that we are now at 14 films and the Marvel juggernaut keeps on churning out blockbuster after blockbuster with rarely a falter. This is yet another notch in the belt for the studio as it expands its list of characters and barrels towards the impending Infinity War extravaganza. Go forth for our somehwat slightly spoilery review.
When we meet Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) he’s a world renowned neurosurgeon at the top of his field. He’s so good at his job he can pull a bullet from somebody’s brain clean whilst reciting obscure nuggets of music trivia. His colleague and possibly-briefly-former-lover Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) is one of the few people who can tolerate his bravado and ego. But when a horrific car accident leaves Strange’s hands barely functional his life ends up in ruins. Desperate to find some way of fixing them, he hears about a secretive place called Kamar-Taj which is said to have healing abilities. But upon his arrival he discovers it’s more than just a place of healing but a place that protects the earth from unseen dark forces intent on destroying our reality. Under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and assisted by Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofir), Strange must learn about the mystic arts and magic and decide whether to take his new found powers back to his old life of fame and fortune, or to leave that behind to defend the world as Sorcerer Supreme.
Director and screenwriter Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil) has predominantly worked on horror and supernatural based films but takes the helm of Marvel’s next installment. In this, along with his co writers Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) and C. Robert Cargill (Sinister), they manage to bring some of those dark undertones and mystical and metaphysical themes into the MCU. Something that has been briefly touched upon courtesy of Thor and even in Ant-Man. However this film pushes much farther into the notions of parallel universes, quantum realms and the multi-verse. With one brief jolt we are launched through space and time and it is revealed to us that we are connected to an infinite set of possibilities. Thus opening up the MCU to its own “infinite”(ish) possibilities. Derrickson also cleverly weaves in two very interesting themes in the film, the first is the notion of hands as weapons and tools of power, the other is that of time and its inevitability. There are many visual cues and nods to both of these throughout the film which then lead up to a surprising reveal near the end.
Thankfully it’s not necessary to have any previous knowledge of who Steven Strange is as a comic character and Derrickson and Co have kept the narrative tightly circling its protagonist. Also this story hinges on the emotional and mental transformation in Strange, we need to see him go from arrogant and self absorbed to respectful and self-less. There is little reason to empathise for him and his plight after his accident, so when he arrives at the doorstep of the Ancient One only to be cast out, it’s pretty funny. So the biggest pay off is we get to see a real progression in his character which is vital for us to want to follow his journey not just in this film but in future films.
The film also ambitiously opens with one of the large action Inception-meets Harry Potter -meets a moving M.C. Escher painting which sets the tone as well as pace. The film does tend to barrel along quite consistently and may appear to be rushing through things but it doesn’t necessarily feel that way. This is a true visual feast for the eyes and at times feels like you’re on a mind-bending spinning twirling roller coaster ride. Derrickson has remained faithful to the Steve Ditko comics and its explosively colourful and acid-trippy like graphics. This is not only great for comic fans but is also an exquisitely beautiful thing to watch on the screen. Potentially combining all sorts of things like the Golden Ratio with a Spirograph or patterns in nature to bring this visual extravaganza to the screen, intentional or not, it works on so many levels. Add to this the ethereal and luscious musical score provided by Michael Giacchino that ranges from quiet to rambunctious mixing woozy orchestral with jarring classic rock chords the weird meets wonderful both visually and aurally.
Cumberbatch as Strange manages to step up to the plate with a convincing performance. It might be hard for some of the Cumberbabes to detach themselves from the Sherlock Holmes comparisons but this is a character who at times is intentionally dickish and a douchebag for no other reason than ego. So he bears a closer likeness to Tony Stark, and not just because of the facial hair. As touched on earlier though the most crucial thing for him is that we believe in Strange’s emotional journey and Cumberbatch manages to deliver a character who goes from stratospheric highs to crushing lows and as we reach the end of the film see him begin to slowly rise again anew.
Tilda Swinton’s performance is every bit as nuanced and pitch perfect as one would expect from an actress as skilled as her. The controversy surrounding her casting is effortlessly sidestepped, particularly since Derrickson made it clear his interpretation of the role was that it was a title and not necessary for the race of the character to remain canonically as an Asian male. In fact Swinton brings a light playfulness to some of her moments, which I feel probably could have been lost when portrayed by a male mentor. Whilst we’re discussing strong women, it’s fantastic that Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer is the one who is by Strange’s bedside as he recovers or gets him out of some hairy situations. There’s no damsel in distress here, but a woman who is equally as skilled and more emotionally grounded than he is. It’s just a shame she didn’t have more screentime to give him some more come-uppance.
Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilus is a formidable and mysterious foe. There’s also the creepy eyes and evil plot to destroy the world to add to his crazy. Props to the Hannibal nod in the film, see if you can pick it. However overall the shadiness of his character results in him lacking any deeper substance. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo has a slightly better arc although his mysterious backstory they are probably holding onto to use in the next film. Frustratingly both of these characters feel like satellites just skirting around Strange and his plotline. You might be surprised to find out that the real MVP of this film though has to go to the Cloak Of Levitation, not since Aladdin’s Magic Carpet have we seen sentient fabric play its own character and be so believably hilarious as well as provide added badass fashion credibility to our leading man. And as with all Marvel films, you should know by now that you need to stay for the particularly hilarious mid-credit and dark and foreboding end credit scenes because of reasons.
Doctor Strange is dramatic, visually and aurally exquisite, funny and intriguingly clever. A film that is so layered and dense that repeated viewings will result in more surprises and an opportunity to see things from new points of view. Once again Marvel is pushing the boundaries of film-making by utilising the latest technology and taking risks to new and exciting quantum realms.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 115 minutes
Doctor Strange is out in Australian cinemas now through Disney/Marvel