The problem with Marvel is that a lot of their characters have the same origin story. “Arrogant prig becomes selfless hero” is almost as commonplace as DC’s “Death of family gives hero guilt-driven purpose”. Stephen Strange’s story may not be all that far removed from that of Tony Stark, or even Thor, and his film’s first act might feel very BATMAN BEGINS, but DOCTOR STRANGE offers so much more in terms of imagery and concepts that you don’t really mind.
Brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is brought crashing down to earth when a car crash leaves him barely able to use his hands. In a desperate search for a solution, he travels to Tibet and comes under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who leads an order of sorcerers who protect time, space and reality itself from inter-dimensional threats. Will Doctor Strange answer the call to become something more in time to stop renegade sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) from performing a dangerous ritual?
From the first scene of the film (an eye-popping magical heist and chase) director Scott Derrickson is making a bold aesthetic statement. Christopher Nolan (who may have been influenced himself by Steve Ditko’s imagery from the original Doctor Strange comics) ain’t got nothing on this. From entire cities flipping and folding, shards of reality punching through our field of vision, a fistfight inside a reversing timeline and some good old-fashioned psychedelic mind-melting, rarely does much time pass without seeing something you’ve never quite seen like this before. As far as I’m concerned, the hallmarks of distinctive modern special effects to create the otherworldly are DARK CITY/THE MATRIX, INCEPTION and now Doctor Strange.
Cumberbatch was born for this role, making surgeon Strange a strutting Sherlock and the magic user he becomes endearingly inept at first, but never above using his previous arrogance and competitive streak to try and get ahead in his new and unlikely profession. Chiwetel Ejiofor hints at a lot more going on below the surface of his calm, collected but pained Mordo, Mikkelsen brings deadpan humour to Kaecilius’s interactions with Strange and Rachel McAdams’ Dr Palmer refreshingly reacts to strange goings on like a real person would, and doesn’t instantly forget her ex was a terrible person when he rocks up in a snazzy new uniform. Swinton is convincing as an ageless bastion of knowledge, but could have made her weirder. Swinton could always make things weirder if she wanted to.
It helps that Marvel commit to adding flashes of fun everywhere, from a great recurring gag which has Strange compare formidable arcane librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) to other famous mononymous celebrities. Even the most intense action scenes aren’t lacking in a few gags, especially when Strange is still a novice and tends to win more by fluke (or very protective sentient cloak) than his skill.
I would say that the visual onslaught is at times a bit much. I hate to compare this, likely the best big-budget extravaganza of the year with WARCRAFT, which…wasn’t, but once again human beings can only take in so much information via our eyeballs. The opening set piece works, as does the concluding sequence for its sheer ballsinesss, but there is so much going on in the scene that ends the film’s second act where Strange and Mordo chase Kaecilius through the highly malleable “Mirror Dimension” that I was struggling to process everything I was seeing in time.
Doctor Strange may not be the most thematically demanding movie out there, but it’s got imagination in abundance and personality to spare, plus every now and then it’s nice to have a film that is pure, unadulterated escapism. The way the Marvel Universe(s) are left at the end of all this certainly offers up some interesting narrative and character possibilities in the future. The only major issue I can foresee in Strange joining the wider action is that his powers are in essence limitless, giving him license to do anything. There are other characters out there where the same could apply, which could result in quite the battle if they find themselves in direct conflict. I can highly recommend this, my favourite blockbuster this year. SSP