UK Release Date: 25th October 2016
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Scott Derrickson
Writer: Scott Derrickson, C Robert Cargill, Jon Spaihts
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Benjamin Bratt
Synopsis: A brilliant surgeon turns to ancient magic when his hands are destroyed in a car accident and soon finds himself learning about sorcery and other dimensions.
It’s that time of the year again – another Marvel film. This time, though, things are a little different as this is one of Marvel’s now trademark creative punts. Doctor Strange, directed by horror specialist Scott Derrickson, is a roll of the dice that introduces magic to the Marvel Cinematic Universe ahead of the looming presence of Infinity War. It also, however, manages to bring in a new superhero and a new roster of interesting side characters in a compelling story that sits comfortably within the Marvel pantheon, whilst also providing something a little different.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a genius surgeon, who is dismissive and arrogant to just about everyone, including on-off lover Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). A devastating car accident leaves him without use of his hands, until he hears of a mystical leader called the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who can heal him. Strange travels to Nepal where he meets the Ancient One and her student Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), as well as mystic librarian Wong (Benedict Wong). The way of life of these sorcerers is threatened by rogue student Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who has darker ideas for how power should be used.
As Marvel origin stories go, Doctor Strange is a very good one. Strange is immediately a rather intriguing take on the standard MCU protagonist, like Tony Stark without the sense of humour. Cumberbatch is firmly within his wheelhouse as an arrogant genius and it’s notable how far the film goes to make it clear that this isn’t a nice man. What’s key is that he remains like that throughout the film. Although Strange’s cape-wearing, spell-casting incarnation later in the film is a clear hero, there’s never a sense that he’s entirely on the side of moral righteousness. He’s intensely full of himself, which bodes well for some interesting relationships when he eventually joins the rest of the Avengers.
Through Strange, we are introduced to a whole new facet of reality in the Marvel world. Tilda Swinton’s uniquely odd Ancient One opens Strange’s mind to inter-dimensional travel as well as astral projection and sorcery, which allows Derrickson to go all out with some zany, out of this world visuals. This is a visual invention that we have never seen before in the Marvel world, with the Steve Ditko-inspired visions of other dimensions making a real impact and helping the movie to feel markedly different from anything Marvel has done before. It makes Nolan’s Inception and Interstellar look like kitchen sink realism.
Unfortunately, the standard Marvel issues are present and correct in Doctor Strange. Despite having a very strong, complex female character in the shape of Swinton’s Ancient One, the film completely squanders Rachel McAdams in one of the most thankless woman roles in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She is a complete non-entity and only really serves to be a line linking Strange to his old life. The same is true of Mads Mikkelsen’s villain, who has all of the same generic trappings as other Marvel villains and is sidelined even in his own movie for the admittedly intelligent climax. Derrickson eschews the standard city-destroying mayhem for something that’s welcome in going for cerebral spectacle rather than physicality.
Doctor Strange deserves credit for its commitment to visual innovation whilst also laying the building blocks for a whole new corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s not quite as sure-footed as the best of Marvel when it comes to comedy and there are some hideously ill-defined characters, but the central narrative is utterly gripping and the mind-bending imagery is utterly fascinating. This is yet another example of Marvel doing what it does better than anyone else – it tweaks its formula just enough to ensure that it’s new film feels distinct, different and, well, strange.
Pop or Poop?
Marvel has stuck the landing once again with Doctor Strange, which adds yet another new wrinkle to the superhero universe. Benedict Cumberbatch is a compelling lead hero and, despite some rather iffy supporting characters and an under-developed villain, it mostly works very well. Add to that some trippy, psychedelic visuals and you have a very solid blockbuster film.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.