Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt
The fourteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange, is a peculiar beast. It is simultaneously the boldest and most conservative Marvel film in some time, taking the franchise in an exciting new visual direction, while taking enormous steps back from the character and relationship complexity of some of Marvel’s more recent films in order to tell a routine origin story.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant, wealthy and arrogant neurosurgeon from New York whose life is turned upside down when a serious car accident leaves him with severe nerve damage in his hands, effectively ending his medical career. After exhausting all the options of western medicine, in desperation he heads to Kathmandu in search of a holy teacher who he has learned healed a man with a serious spinal injury. There he is met by the mysterious Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who takes him to Kamar-Taj, an ancient community of sorcerers under the leadership of the Supreme Sorcerer, known only as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Despite his scepticism, the Ancient One assures him that she can teach his mind to heal his body, and with study and hard work, Strange makes rapid progress in the development of his sorcery. But while his goal is simply to regain the capacity to return to his old life, it would seem destiny has other plans. Where heroes like the Avengers defend the world from physical threats, the sorcerers protect the world from mystical threats. The latest such threat is a former sorcerer, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who has stolen some pages of a holy text from the Kamar-Taj library with which he plans to gain entry to the Dark Dimension, and Doctor Strange must put his new found abilities to the test if they are to stop him.
Doctor Strange introduces an Eastern mysticism into Marvel’s story world. Where Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy expanded the MCU into space, Doctor Strange blows things wide open, turning the universe into a multiverse with multiple parallel dimensions. This new landscape is created with some eye-popping, mind-bending visuals, making Doctor Strange easily the most visually interesting and boldly stylised of Marvel’s films. Director Scott Derrickson announces this stylistic difference from the opening sequence, a chase through London in which rival sorcerers use their magic to manipulate the physical world around them resulting in a kaleidoscopic sensation that looks like Inception dialled up to eleven.
However, despite this leap forward in visual imagination and experimentation, the story upon which these visuals hang is a disappointingly regulation, single-focus origin story. As such, it feels like a regression for the MCU. After the multi-faceted excitement of Captain America: Civil War, which engaged multiple established characters and complex relationships, we are once again back focusing on a single brash, egotist who must be broken down in order to be built up, who must learn to master newfound newfound skills and tools (Strange has a cape of levitation which behaves like the reincarnated magic carpet from Disney’s Aladdin). Strange must learn to let go of his headstrong rationalism in order to embrace the mystical, and only then will he be ready for the inevitable third act battle with the villain.
Marvel Studios have an exemplary track record when it comes to casting their superhero films, starting with the initial casting of Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man, but Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange feels like the first possible misstep. That is not to say that he was the wrong guy for the role – he certainly looks the part – but the role doesn’t feel like it has been written for him. Strange is an arrogant, narcissistic genius, a character that is well and truly in Cumberbatch’s wheelhouse (see his work in Sherlock). But he is an undeniably American form of that character. He feels like a cross between Tony Stark and Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House. When Cumberbatch is so undeniably British, having him play this American version of arrogance and bravado doesn’t quite fit. In fact, it seems to limit him. While he is clearly committed to the role, not being a wise-cracking American, Cumberbatch struggles to sell the humour and as a result Strange ends up being all arrogance without the charisma to compensate for it.
As always, Marvel has surrounded its star with a quality supporting cast. While the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One was initially controversial, given the character is supposed to be Asian, it is wonderfully effective. Taking advantage of Swinton’s natural alien quality, it liberates the Ancient One from being another stereotype of Eastern wisdom. Swinton instead brings a lightness and humour to the role. The rest of the supporting cast is willing but underused. Benedict Wong’s Librarian is a fun character, and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo, disciple of the Ancient One, promises to play a more significant role in future instalments. You can’t get a much better villain than Mads Mikkelsen, though the role of Kaecilius hardly stretches him. Rachel McAdams is the hardest done by, entirely shortchanged as Strange’s colleague and love interest Christine Palmer.
As always with Marvel movies, you should stay to the end of the credits. Doctor Strange has both a mid- and post-credit scene, with one giving and indication as to where this series will progress, while the other features a familiar face and hints at how Strange will work his way into the broader MCU narrative.
Doctor Strange is something you’re very familiar with cloaked in something you have never seen before. It bucks the trend of recent Marvel movies where the focus has been first and foremost on characters and relationships, to instead provide a pure visual feast.
Review by Duncan McLean
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