With the copious amount of comic book characters leaping from page to screen nowadays, it really does take a great deal of effort to do something different, something unique, something (you know where we are going here)…strange. Well in conjuring up a film adaptation of Steve Ditko’s magical maestro Doctor Stephen Strange, Marvel Studios really have had quite a task on their hands. A product of the ‘60s mind (altering) set, Doctor Strange is a character that must have been a challenge to do justice to onscreen (see some racial stereotypes of the era in the source material). The spiritual mythos and magical elements of the character are a change of pace to the MCU and the production of this film has certainly raised eyebrows. With accusations of whitewashing the cast (The Ancient One is portrayed by a white English woman) and some unsure about the casting of the good doctor himself, as well as the appointment of (until now) Horror genre director Scott Derrickson (Sinister), people were keen to see the results. Well, rest easy fans, Marvel have delivered…again.
The film centres on brilliant but egotistical neurosurgeon ace Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is left with nerve damage in his hands after a near fatal car crash. Desperate to regain his steady hand and thus his career, and after various failures with medicine, he is directed to the Tibeten community of Kamar-Taj to a group who may be able to help, with the use of “alternative” treatments. However this group, led by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), has more to offer than healing remedies, as Strange is challenged to unlock his true potential by opening his mind to the impossible. In many ways Doctor Strange is typical Marvel formula but with pepperings of fresher elements. This origin story certainly draws from the rulebook heavily, with the plot structure working out like clockwork at times. True, this studio formula is growing overly familiar but Derrickson’s film is bolstered by a superb central performance and grand scaled ingenuity in its action.
Like Iron Man, this is a film energized by the hero it is introducing and the screen absorbing appeal of this new face in the MCU makes the film work, in spite of the familiarity of its narrative rhythm and the weakness of its villainous component (a common issue across Marvel’s movieverse). Cumberbatch’s casting may have worried some but he is in his element here and is simply sublime as the initially self-centred and egomaniacal genius (not far removed from his turn as Holmes in BBC’s Sherlock). Doctor Strange is a joy every time he is onscreen and Cumberbatch captures the essence of the character’s intrigue, intellect, dimension bending power and big screen friendly enchantment. In fact, this may be Marvel’s most enigmatic movie character since Robert Downey Jr. started as Tony Stark.
The supporting cast is also effective with Chiwetel Ejiofor being a strong accomplice as fellow sorcerer Karl Mordo (though fans will know things are going to get more interesting there in the future), Benedict Wong being very entertaining as straight faced protector of the mythic scripture Wong (eschewing the character’s problematic comic book presentation) and – in spite of the controversy – Tilda Swinton is great as The Ancient One. Rachel McAdams is underused (in a similar manner to Portman in Thor) as Strange’s co-surgeon come romantic interest Christine Palmer and while Mads Mikkelson exudes menace (as he does so easily), his villain Kaecilius is pretty ordinary, as is the big bad we meet in the film’s effects filled finale, which borders on falling prey to third act syndrome but recovers it nicely.
However, in spite of the film’s few missteps, it never ceases to be an entertaining origin movie, focused on introducing this character rather than building up the universe (minus the film’s two absolutely brilliant post-credits scenes). This constant entertainment is of course down to the potential brilliance of the title character but is also credited to some stunning kaleidoscopic action sequences that recall Inception and feel like the result of what would happen had Christopher Nolan taken LSD while making that film. From the start this set piece packed caper is stunningly realized and these perfectly rendered sequences of magic and cinematographic parlor tricks are the film’s ace in the hole. As is a beautiful score by Michael Giacchino, who at times hits on Indian sounding psychedelic riffs and meshes them with Queen-like guitar work (the end credits track is simply divine).
Doctor Strange is a treat for the eyes and ears for sure and is a rare film that makes good use of big screen 3D. It is not flawless but you’ll be carried along for the whole 115 minutes and enjoy the landscape folding, cape swirling and spell-casting ride. The formula may be getting well worn but now that we know how Strange became “Master of the Mystic Arts” and embraced his power, the real fun can begin and on this evidence Benedict Cumberbatch is a future scene stealer in this world of Hulks, raccoons and demi-gods. Doctor Strange is another enjoyable offering in the MCU.
DOCTOR STRANGE / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR: SCOTT DERRICKSON / SCREENPLAY: SCOTT DERRICKSON, C. ROBERT CARGILL / STARRING: BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH, TILDA SWINTON, CHIWETEL EJIOFOR, MADS MIKKELSEN, RACHEL MCADAMS, BENEDICT WONG / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected Rating: 8/10