Director: Scott Derrickson
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch,
Review Author: Shaun
It’s weird as a big superhero fan to go into a comic book film fully blind on a character and events but this film was the first. Off the bat: I enjoyed the nearly 2-hour flick and it does hold up as a strong first outing for the doctor. It was a refreshing experience going into his with no prior knowledge of the character and to be honest I didn’t really have much interest in seeing this but the old word of mouth, turned me around.
Let’s be honest there’s never been anything particularly special about the special effects in the Marvel movies. For all the money and resources, the studio dumps into its big-bang showdowns, these are still superhero extravaganzas that put more stock in quips than spectacle; “cool enough” is about the highest praise one can usually lavish upon their elaborate climaxes, even when they feature a rampaging rage-monster, duelling deities, or a fleet of flying battle drones. But Doctor Strange is different. The 14th instalment in the MCU is the first to really exploit the possibilities of CGI—to use state-of-the-art technology to its full, jaw-dropping advantage. “Insane” doesn’t do justice to this blockbuster’s city- and reality-bending set pieces. As a person who hates 3D, this is the first film I’ve ever considered that maybe I should have seen it in 3D.
The film’s wow factor arrives early, with a standard prologue: Dark wizards flee what looks like an ancient temple, only to emerge into the blinding daylight of contemporary Manhattan, which the hooded figure on their tail then folds inward, altering the direction of gravity’s pull and transforming skyscrapers into giant, rotating gears. Visually and conceptually, Doctor Strange owes more to the inverted physics of Inception and the East-Meets-West chop-stocky of The Matrix trilogy. As storytelling, however, it’s very much MCU business as usual, the same old origin story which we have all seen before.
Embracing the full power of his charismatic arrogance, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stephen Strange, a world-famous neurosurgeon who loses his livelihood (his Hands) in a car accident. Out of surgical solutions, Strange desperately turns to alternative medicine, flying to Nepal to consult with The Ancient One who is leader of a cabal of super-powered, dimension-hopping monks. Strange, a man of science, approaches their mind-over-matter philosophy with scepticism which in turn becomes a roadblock to his ascension in the magical arts. But he’s also a fiercely competitive quick learner, an egghead determined to be the smartest man in every room. Doctor Strange has some fun with the sight of this sworn materialist mastering a worldview he barely believes in.
With his goatee, colossal ego, and barrage of referential humour, Strange is basically Tony Stark in a magic cape. But whereas Iron Man built a world around Robert Downey Jr.’s snarky star performance, Doctor Strange uses its own sardonic hero as more of a comical counterpoint, a surrogate to poke fun at the mumbo jumbo surrounding him but also embrace it. That’s smart, because there’s a lot of mumbo jumbo in this movie, which adds New Age mysticism to a cross-franchise universe already accommodating mad science, intergalactic empires, and ancient space gods.
The film is very fast pasted and no more than a few minutes ever pass without some eye-popping display of wizardry, both literal and digital. The action scenes in this movie are playfully, kaleidoscopically incredible. Derrickson builds on Inception, topping its hallway skirmish with the addition of dimensional portals and in the film’s presumed Best Visual Effects clincher, twisting an entire metropolis into an M.C. Escher war zone.
Marvel has assembled a typically esteemed cast, without giving the actors much to do beyond fire the occasional deadpan aside and swoop their hands around in circular motion. As Mordo, an essential supporting player in the Doctor Strange universe, Chiwetel Ejiofor goes through the origin-story paces, making up time until the protagonist becomes more interesting. Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams gets stuck with an MCU love-interest role, far less crucial than the ones Natalie Portman and Gwyneth Paltrow have already abandoned.
Mads Mikkelsen plays the main villain, a sorcerer rebelling against the cruel march of time and certainty of death with a chilly self-regard he could conjure in his sleep and this is where the film falls down. Once again Marvel have made a basic, no real impact villain who you will fail to remember. This is the 14th movie in the MCU and there has been only one villain to date that has made any impact. Mikkelsen villain apparently arrived at the temple a broken man and seeks to rebuild what he’s lost and eventually loses his way after finding out he has been lied to. Unfortunately, we see none of this and its only explained in a few exposition scenes and once again the villain falls to the way side. This is the question going forward for the MCU and how do they fix it? – The answer is quite simple and they only have to look at the Netflix shows who have the best two villains in the whole MCU with Kingpin and the Purple man but only time will tell!
Saying that the film remains reliable sources of bright, brisk entertainment without ever achieving the pop resonance of the best comic-book adaptations, like Spider-Man 2 or The Dark Knight. That’s mostly because they operate by a tried-and-true formula, delivering variations on what’s worked before. Doctor Strange, for all the welcome grandeur of its visuals, fits neatly into that tradition of quality without risk, most evident in the setting-things-up franchise management of its storytelling and the familiarity of its character arc. Who is Strange, after all, but another swinging dick, like Iron Man or Thor or Starlord, learning the value of a little humility? Doctor Strange is strong opening act and I do look forward to seeing him again and they do lay a lot of ground work for where the character is going and who will be the next villain (see the two post credit scenes).