Part Batman Begins, part Iron Man with a sprinkling of Inception, Doctor Strange offers a fresh take on the established Marvel formula.
Directed by Scott Derrickson, Doctor Strange stars Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, Benedict Wong as Wong and Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius.
This is a spoiler free zone.
Doctor Strange is a high profile, egotistical and brilliant neurosurgeon when he is involved in a car accident, entirely of his own doing, which results in irreparable damage to his hands. When western medicine fails him (although he says, ironically, that he could have fixed them himself), Strange heads to Nepal (obviously) seeking The Ancient One who lives in Kamar-Taj. Initially sceptical about the ancient arts, Strange becomes a pupil of The Ancient One to try to, initially, recover the use of his hands but he soon realises that the world doesn’t, in fact, revolve around him and puts his new found powers to greater use. That use being trying to prevent the end of all existence.
First off, this is classic Marvel. It’s the classic Marvel blueprint. Imagine the first Iron Man film viewed through a kaleidoscope while on magic mushrooms with some magic and you’re pretty much there. While this is slightly disappointing and does make you wish there was somebody out there willing to tell a superhero origin story in a different way, Doctor Strange is too much fun to resent its shortcomings.
All the cast are just as excellent as you’d expect. Cumberbatch channels his inner Hugh Laurie as House and that’s not a bad thing. He plays the transition from selfish surgeon to selfless saviour really nicely and with confidence and charisma. He goes through a subtle yet important character arc throughout the film. This is most obvious in a poignant scene with Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One. He’s a very similar character, at least on paper, to Tony Stark. Rich, selfish, egoistical, sarcastic, charismatic. But Cumberbatch brings a deeper level to what, on the surface, is a superficial character. This is partly in thanks to McAdams’ Palmer who is Strange’s link to humanity. She doesn’t have an awful lot to do but what she does do is really good and the scenes between the two do a really good job of showing us ‘The real Stephen’.
Tilda Swinton offers a deeper take on the generic mentor role in a superhero origin film than you’d expect and a lot of that is down to her performance which, while powerful and knowledgeable, also offers a nice amount of vulnerability and humanity. Ejiofor is good as Mordo and his relationship with Strange is an interesting aspect of the film, especially given that he is a well known Doctor Strange advisory in the comics. Mikkelsen is great as Kaecilius and funnier than you’d expect but his character suffers from generic bad guy destroying the world syndrome. There’s some motive there, but it doesn’t really add up. Benedict Wong’s Wong (no, not that) is a big part of the comic relief and I’m looking forward to seeing his relationship with Strange to blossom in following films.
Tonally, this is pretty much standard Marvel. It’s got great character moments, comical moments and a big old punch off at the end. But Derrickson coats the Marvel scaffolding with incredible visuals and offers a clever alternative to the CGI explosion-a-thon we usually get at the end of these films. It’s a quick film at a snippet under 2 hours and I think Strange’s character arc suffers a little for it. I wish we had an extra few scenes showing his development into a powerful sorcerer. It feels a little rushed, truth be told.
What I really liked was that Doctor Strange overcomes the challenges facing him using his intellect. He’s not magically a better sorcerer than his adversaries after only a short period of training. He uses what he’s good at. He uses his intelligence to win. It’s great to see writers/ directors actually think about how this hero will defeat his villain without pure luck or an inexplicably powerful skill set. There’s nothing more annoying than a hero who is destined to win because the title is named after them. That’s right Harry Potter, I’m looking at you.
What Doctor Strange does do differently is introduce us to a complete game changer in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And that’s the existence of magic. It’s used really well in the film. It’s not overused and is implemented well and with imagination in the action sequences to keep them fun and interesting. And that’s what this film is, despite the adhesion to a generic structure.