30/10/2016 | Jake Richardson
With Doctor Strange, Marvel successfully introduces an interesting, and potentially risky, character into their cinematic universe with an interesting and unique change to their sometimes stale formula.
Doctor Strange opens with an updated Marvel Studios logo that runs you through the recent cinematic history of the studio. We see Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, and more. We see stories we’ve known and loved and stories we didn’t really care for that much. More than anything, this 30 second piece of brand advertising brings to mind one of the major problems people have with Marvel pictures – that they often feel the same.
Familiar plot tones, character arcs, and city destroying climaxes characterise Marvel pictures, and it is something they are struggling to get away from. Doctor Strange represents an entry into the canon that doesn’t completely conquer this formulaic problem, but certainly makes a fair go of it.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a New York neurosurgeon, who is as arrogant as they come. On the way to an awards dinner, he crashes his supercar, mangling his hands; an injury that makes him unable to work. He searches everywhere for a cure for the nerve damage in his hands, but to no avail. Eventually, he finds his way to Nepal, where he meets Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) – a mystical magician who saves Strange from some bandits. Mordo leads Strange to the temple he is searching for, where he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton); the leader of a group of mystical sorcerers, who trains Doctor Strange in the mystical arts.
The plot is a fairly standard origin story for a Marvel film. The hero has some difficulty, gains some power, and has to decide whether to use it for the good of humanity. We have seen it all before in that respect. What we haven’t seen before is spectacle or creativity of this level. Doctor Strange could have been one of the hardest characters of the Marvel comics to bring into the MCU – he is a magician who waves his hand about to create magic. In a world with a flying robot, a shield-bearing super soldier and a guy who can shoot arrows pretty well, Strange could be a risky fit. But director Scott Derrickson takes our expectation of action in a Marvel movie and throws it out the window. The creativity of the fights between Strange, or the Ancient One, and Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is remarkable. From the trippy journey Strange is launched on when he first meets The Ancient One, to the New York-warping battle in the ‘mirror realm’ that concludes the second act, to the time shifting final battle in Hong Kong, every action set piece is better than the last.
Most importantly, they lead to a climactic battle with space god Dormammu that provides an interesting counter-point to previous Marvel entries. There is no falling city to be seen here, only a smart piece of writing that has Strange strike a bargain with Dormammu. Of course, there are the regular tropes of self-sacrifice, but they feel earned after Strange’s emotional arc.
That such an arc feels justified is a testament to Cumberbatch’s performance. While he is still an acerbic, witty and self-righteous jerk, Cumberbatch’s Strange tones down the arrogance of his comic book counterpart. His rage at ex-girlfriend Christine Palmer would have fallen flat in lesser hands, but Benedict Cumberbatch makes it work. Gags that wouldn’t always work (such as the innumerable jokes surrounding Strange’s temperamental cape), are in safe hands with Cumberbatch. He colours Strange enough to
make him sympathetic, and his final repetitive time-loop battle with Dormammu is a joy to watch.
Other characters don’t fare so well. Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer character is underutilised and relatively unexplained; a fate shared by Ejiofor’s Mordo. Mikkelsen’s villainous Kaecilius fares the worst though – a cookie-cutter bad guy who is never really provided with a backstory. Even Tilda Swinton’s the Ancient One feels like she should have more explanation and history. She is a woman who has been alive for centuries, and it would have been fun to explore some of her influence over the years.
This is really the main issue with Doctor Strange. Yes, the plot is relatively similar to previous Marvel instalments as a general structural outline, and yes the score sounds like a direct copy of recent Star Trek films, but the biggest transgression is in trying to cram too much in to a 2-hour film. We have to cover all of Dr Strange’s backstory, his search for a cure for his damaged hands, his learning of the mystical ways, his fight with one bad guy, and then his fight with another big bad. At times, it feels like we are missing excellent opportunities for storytelling. Even more frustrating is when these mystical sorcerers’, who have been training for years, suddenly just turn to Strange as their saviour even though he has seemingly only been there for a couple of months. He seems to master things in a matter of seconds, which is perfectly fine as a premise, but it doesn’t make sense that he would be immediately thrust into the limelight as the saviour of the Sorcerers when he is learning these techniques in the heat of battle.
In the end, Doctor Strange is a flawed but lovable, much like it’s title character. It is a refreshing invigoration of an often formulaic MCU, and introduces us to a character played to perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch. Not only that, it gives us some of the most unique, creative and fantastical action sequences you will see this year.
Marvel’s newest offering, Doctor Strange, struggles under the weight of so many characters and so many plotlines, but ultimately blends CGI Wizardry with an incredible performance by Benedict Cumberbatch to craft a winning and unique film that will have you wishing for more of the Sorcerer Supreme.