The Marvel brand at this stage is, like its Netflix lead Luke Cage, bulletproof. Whether it’s the aforementioned server crashing streaming show or the slam dunk success of Captain America: Civil War, the comic based production house can seemingly do no wrong. Now comes the long heralded big screen debut of one its crown jewels: Doctor Strange.
Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an arrogant surgeon who suffers a serious car accident, rendering his hands useless and putting his career in tatters. Seeking a cure leads him to Kathmandu where he learns from the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) the mystical arts that will heal him. Under her teaching, he begins to harness strong cosmic powers that can bend reality and will be needed to stop a former pupil of the Ancient One turned zealot (Mads Mikkelsen) bringing about Earth’s destruction.
With multiple universes, mirror dimensions and cosmic magical powers, there are a lot of heady concepts to set up within Doctor Strange. Scott Derrickson, in his first foray outside of his horror wheelhouse, manages to credibly present such potentially confusing or incredulous ideas without it becoming an info dump or having a character function as Basic Exposition. Names like Dormmamu, Kamar-taj and The Eye of Agamoto could devolve into a confusing mess. Keeping things bright, breezy and accessible is essential to make the film enjoyable and the creative team succeeds here. The action is clear, zippy and fun, particularly a battle across New York landscape altered to resemble an Escher painting.
With the whole cosmos as its playground, the film could have become unmoored. Anchoring things is Cumberbatch in a star turn, playing a part that seems tailor made for him. Strange has a touch of Sherlock about him, with a brilliant but aloof and cocky mind, but this isn’t a Xeroxed version of his breakout performance. His Strange is a man who is wounded, difficult but striving to be a better person and Cumberbatch’s humour and strong dramatic chops help ground both Strange as a character and Doctor Strange itself.
The ensemble around him features great actors playing parts both major and minor. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo proves to be a compelling, conflicted companion to our hero. Swinton provides a fresh spin on the mentor role that should quash the pre-release ‘controversy’ of white washing. Rachel McAdams brings warmth and spark as Strange’s erstwhile lover, her great chemistry with Cumberbatch helping elevate the usual ‘girlfriend’ role. Benedict Wong’s stoic Wong gets a few laughs and is a welcome presence as always.
Villains, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki aside, haven’t been the strongest facet of the Marvel films. Doctor Strange manages to buck the trend by taking after its TV counterparts Daredevil and Jessica Jones to craft an interesting adversary. Kaecilius is an interesting antagonist because he has a legitimate grievance with our heroes and a believable motivation to justify the havoc he wreaks. Mikkelsen, so often a baddie he could be forgiven for Skyping it in, imbues charisma and a righteous fury into his character. Extra points given for rocking the silvery/pink eye shadow.
The Marvel template of ‘outsider[s] finds a heroic calling and uses their super powers to save the day from an interdimensional entity’ is becoming a tad predictable. While it’s understandable the studio didn’t want to kick off Strange with a more ‘out there’ story, it is essentially telling the same tale as Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man and Thor. The emotional pull of Strange’s loss of self, the visual splendour of the cosmic vistas (kudos goes to visual effects department) and a reasonably neat inversion on the usual last act mass destruction do counteract such familiar story beats if not entirely transcend them.
Though he might not reign as Sorcerer Supreme yet, Doctor Strange is a strong introduction to a new leading man and whole new corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Doctor Strange was released in the UK on 25th October 2016