A fantastical, psychedelic, delightful visual feast that overcome its origin story trappings. Doctor Strange is another reminder that Marvel are at the height of their cinematic powers.
There’s no question that the superhero genre has become one that, unfortunately, is incredibly saturated. In the past two years, we’ve had nine significant comic-book releases, with SIX of them coming between now and March just gone. In a genre so jam-packed with content, it takes something bold to distance itself from the ‘superhero fatigue’. Thankfully, despite many warring DC fans wishing against it, Marvel have managed to produce another outing from a new character that is sure to become a hit.
This particular Marvel effort follows the beginning of Doctor Stephen Strange’s journey into becoming, who comic book fans all recognise as, the sorcerer supreme. Brazenly arrogant and utterly self-centred neurosurgeon, Strange, is the best of the best. Choosing only to operate extremely difficult and unusual surgeries, he focuses purely on taking full credit. After an accident, the damage he takes to his hands makes him unable to do his job and in a vain and frantic search to find a way of healing himself, he stumbles upon the teachings of The Ancient One and begins his journey into the mystic arts.
The problem that Doctor Strange immediately faces is that it has to find a way of approaching the ‘origin story’ mould that doesn’t feel completely familiar and well-trodden. Unfortunately, much like many of the original solo outings, it finds it hard to do that. In fact, you’ll find yourself thinking ‘this story is an awful lot like Iron Man’ and you’d pretty much be on the right track. It does follow some of the very same plot beats that Robert Downey Jr’s first time as Tony Stark had, and whilst it doesn’t suffer too much as a result, it will feel oddly familiar in that aspect. Thankfully however, that’s the only thing that will irk you as the rest of this is completely unique and utterly bonkers (in a good way).
Marvel has been criticised recently about its persistence in keeping to a simple and over-utilized formula. Doctor Strange does somewhat fall into that category of the bombastic CGI meltdown third act of other Marvel Cinematic Universe entries, but the journey to that is one of the most bizarre and remarkable ones yet.
Visually, this is the most beautiful and spectacular visit to the extended universe that we’ve seen thus far. An integral part of Strange’s character and powers is the ability to see beyond our world and tap into the power of the many different dimensions that exist beyond our comprehension. With that knowledge, he (and the supporting cast of heroes and villians) are able to bend and manipulate the realities of time and space to their will. This introduction, to what is essentially magic, in the MCU is incredibly realized and performed. The set-pieces include buildings folding into each other and their properties being bended and manipulated, time being reversed and forwarded before our very eyes, and shifts in location and space happening in a flash. So much is happening onscreen that we barely have time to marvel (pun intended) at it all. The closest thing to it is imagining the scene in which the city folds on itself in Christopher Nolan’s Inception but on acid. That’s the only accurate way of even beginning to describe what you’re seeing.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange is a perfect example of spot on casting. Tapping somewhat into the smugness and arrogance that he sprinkles into his version of Sherlock Holmes, he completely sells Strange’s journey from self-obsessed genius to genuine hero. It was a role that plays to Cumberbatch’s strengths and is an absolute coup for the MCU. Similarly, despite heavy backlash to do with the whitewashing of roles in Hollywood, Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of The Ancient One is a joy, combining sage-like wisdom and warmth. Mads Mikklesen, another consistently great actor, is convincingly menacing as the villain Kaecilius but is unfortunately under utilised and his motivations are murky at best. The rest of the supporting cast which includes Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong are all solid in their roles but also suffer from being under utilised.
Similarly, up until this point, Marvel’s appointment of various different directors and visions has been almost inch perfect. From Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearian sensibilities in Thor to James Gunn’s oddball humour in Guardians of The Galaxy. Every appointment has come with a degree of risk, and overseer Kevin Feige’s persistence to experiment with the directors set to continue with the completely leftfield choice of Taika Watiti to handle Thor: Ragnarok, we’ll continue to see a freshness in the output.
Director Scott Derrickson’s roots have, up until this point, been firmly in horror. Helming the likes of Sinister, Deliver Us from Evil & The Exorcism of Emily Rose, it was fair to assume that this would be a deviation from his usual work (despite being behind the critical and box office remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still). It comes at a pleasant surprise actually, that despite deviating heavily from his forté, he directs here with confidence and flair. His action set-pieces are full to the brim with astonishing visuals and are kinetic and thrilling but never disorientating. His handling of the audacious visuals is fantastic and proves that he was the right choice to continue the venture in Marvel’s phase three. Similarly, the script of screenwriters Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Carhill plays to Marvel’s strengths. It’s tight, smart, funny and moves at a swift pace; it avoids the unnecessary baggage that has weighted other comic book efforts this year ( Batman v Superman and X-Men Apocalypse, for example). Its relatively lean running time, clocking at 115 minutes, also ensures that it doesn’t outstay its welcome.
With the MCU now 14 movies deep, there’s always a danger that its movies at this point might lose their way in terms of story to accommodate for world-building and setting up future instalments. Doctor Strange, whilst being one of the most self-contained (and for that, much stronger) efforts, proves that there’s a long way to go before Marvel’s extended universe loses its steam.
Doctor Strange (2016), directed by Scott Derrickson, is distributed by Walt Disney Studios. Certificate 12A.