Having enjoyed astonishing commercial success in bringing the likes of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor to the forefront of the superhero genre, Marvel Studios stretch their legs for the fourteenth film in their cinematic universe, and decide to take things in a slightly stranger direction.
A prodigious neurosurgeon with an ego to match his talent, Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch in all of his self-satisfied, superior glory) loses everything he holds dear when a car accident renders his hands little more than glove holders, halting the astronomical rise of his career. Desperate to return to his former status, Strange treks the globe searching for any solution, finally arriving on the doorstep of Kamar-Taj, where he hopes to learn the secrets of the mystical arts from a sorcerer known only as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and another of her disciples, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
The arrogance and self-esteem of Strange will be instantly familiar to anyone who has seen Robert Downey Jr’s own contribution to the MCU, but thankfully the comparisons are short lived. While Tony Stark continues to build his personality around snarky remarks and unfiltered self-adulation, Strange manages to grow into his own distinct character under the tutelage of Swinton’s no-nonsense Sorcerer Supreme. Over the course of his first foray into the feature film, we see the good doctor gain a sense of respect for the world around him, helped in no small part by the fact that what he understands the world to be is changing before his very eyes.
Instead of holding the audience’s hand and drip feeding the new rules of the universe, director Scott Derrickson (SINISTER, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE) jumps right into an action sequence in which The Ancient One goes toe-to-toe with a group of fanatics who stole pages from a forbidden spell book. Through the use of a form of street dancing called tutting (taught to the cast by YouTuber and professional movement designer JayFunk) Swinton and her fellows cast spells that allow them to jump between dimensions, suspend the laws of physics, and even fold entire city blocks over themselves like colossal origami – and that’s just the first ten minutes.
…the Master of the Mystic Arts has a habit of breathing new life into staling franchises…
The visual effects on display here, as the sorcerers readjust reality at the flick of a wrist, are a far cry from anything seen in a Marvel film before. Even INCEPTION, the closest comparable thing, didn’t stretch to the limits achieved in DOCTOR STRANGE. Clever camera angles and razor sharp editing play a huge part in the immersion of these action set pieces, hurtling the audience through kaleidoscopic dimensions at a dizzying pace, delivering some truly satisfying scenes. This is by far the film’s greatest strength: rather than resting on the laurels of the pre-existing superhero formula, DOCTOR STRANGE manages to keep this mystical story grounded in the MCU, while adding a mind-bending twist to the pre-existing rules of the genre.
Interestingly, The Sorcerer Supreme made similar strides against repetitive superhero stories when the comic was first introduced in 1963. Inspired by the likes of Chandu the Magician and other radio serials of the 1930s, creators Steve Ditko and Stan Lee conjured up not only a new kind of superhero, but also a new sect of society to market towards. The core theme of Doctor Strange’s origin, opening your mind to new ideas and ways of thinking, along with the heavy reliance on psychedelic visuals and eastern mysticism, helped to gain a foothold among the hippy counterculture movement, and just like magic they found a niche audience that lapped up the acid washed visuals and high concept story-lines. Clearly the Master of the Mystic Arts has a habit of breathing new life into staling franchises.
True to form, Benedict Cumberbatch does an excellent job bringing Strange off of the page: with a passable American accent and buckets full of gravitas, he navigates his character through arrogant highs and depressive lows with ease, delivering many of the films more dramatic and heartfelt moments. Of course, no superhero truly fights alone, and sure enough, it’s in the supporting cast that the film really finds its depth. Tilda Swinton swells with ineffable wisdom, giving effortless credence to her status as Sorcerer Supreme, Chiwetel Ejiofor particularly shines as Mordo, with an impressive story arc that is rarely afforded to a secondary character, as well does a certain unexpected inclusion that has a truly magical relationship with Strange, not unlike that between Aladdin and his flying carpet.
… single-faceted forces of evil that hark back to the days of a bad guy twiddling his curly moustache …
Less attention is unfortunately paid to Strange’s fellow surgeon and quasi-love interest, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). Far from a lack in choice of actor – McAdams does fine work with what is given to her – it’s the nature of trying to cram too much into one film and there simply isn’t very much for her to do besides pine after the dismissive doctor and provide help when he needs it. Benedict Wong’s sorcerer (also named Wong) similarly found himself with very little to work with besides exposition and comic relief. With a little luck and a tighter script, these characters have the potential to expand more in future sequels into roles worthy of the talent behind them.
Once more diverting away from the norms of the MCU, the villain of the piece, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is also given room to develop beyond the usual single dimension, addressing one of the major flaws that beleaguered the otherwise stalwart offerings that came before DOCTOR STRANGE. Villains like Ultron, Ronan The Accuser, The Red Skull, and basically anyone who wasn’t Loki, all suffered from an inherent lack of any personality, and were left as single-faceted forces of evil that hark back to the days of a bad guy twiddling his curly moustache and laughing manically at the good guy in the white hat. Storytelling has evolved to a point where audiences demand more motivation than the overly simplistic “world domination”, and so it’s encouraging to see Marvel taking steps to bring the same level of characterisation to every member of their ever expanding repertoire, not just the ones we’re supposed to root for.
Overall, DOCTOR STRANGE is a fun, fantastical and fresh feeling film that builds up to what is by far the most satisfying and original finale to date, albeit while hitting the usual origin story notes along the way. With only a few stumbles and missteps, the superhero genre has been taken into a brand new reality, and there’s no going back now.