Doctor Strange (2016).
Director: Scott Derrickson (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Sinister, Deliver Us from Evil).
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, The Imitation Game, Star Trek Into Darkness), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, Othello, The Martian) , Rachel McAdams (Mean Girls, True Detective, Spotlight), Benedict Wong (Marco Polo, The Martian), Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Hannibal), Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton, Snowpiercer).
Doctor Strange is, incredibly, the 14th film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). While Iron Man, Captain America and Thor occupy a large playing field of the ever-expanding franchise, Doctor Strange‘s origin story is similar to that of Ant-Man, it’s not concerned with the events of the Avengers and other Marvel heroes. It would be difficult to pull off the tone of a Captain America film in the style of Doctor Strange, and director Scott Derrickson has managed to create the most spectacular looking film in the universe so far. Christopher Nolan’s Inception meets the Wachowski’s Matrix meets Harry Potter. The plot does wear thin, but the film looks fantastic while telling it.
Doctor Strange is an origin story, so the majority of focus is going to be put on its titular character, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). The ‘hero’s journey’ audiences have become accustomed to is prevalent here, and other aspects of the film suffer from it, namely the majority of the side characters. But screenwriters Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill, together with director Derrickson, manage to twist and bend the script, just like the film’s visuals, to achieve a movie that doesn’t feel like a part of the Marvel brand.
Stephen Strange is an arrogant, successful, one-percenter who must discover modesty after suffering a terrible experience. Sound familiar? While Strange and Tony Stark do share many similarities, mainly great facial hair, Cumberbatch pulls of the arrogant, know-it-all presence of the surgeon, a trait he no doubt learned while portraying Sherlock Holmes. At times, the actor does appear to be playing a watered down Mr. Stark, but hopefully in the inevitable team up, we’ll see how the two differ. Dodgy American accent aside, Cumberbatch proves that whoever is in charge of casting at Marvel needs a serious pay rise.
A spectacularly brutal car crash opens the film, which might cause some viewers to avert their eyes from the screen, it’s a unembellished accident that doesn’t shy away from the blunt message; don’t text and drive. Severely damaging his hands in the accident, Strange can no longer perform surgery, and then only person good enough to fix his hands, is Strange himself, which he cannot do. Therefore, Strange sets off around the world to find help from anyone willing to give it. His journey takes him to Nepal, where he finds the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who in order to help him heal, teaches Strange about the Mystic Arts.
Swinton excels in the otherworldly nature of the Ancient One, a person believed to have lived for hundreds of years. Both Cumberbatch and Swinton use their experience as classically trained actors to elevate their performances, a trait shared by the rest of the cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Karl Mordo, is having so much fun playing his character, as if he were in a stage production of Hamlet, delivering monologues and guidance to Strange in the only way a Shakespearian actor could.
Much has been said about Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) being little more than a love interest to Strange, but when the time comes, he relies on her to save his life, not the other way around. It’s not much, but the part does feel underwritten, a trait unfortunately shared by many female characters in the MCU. However, my favourite character of the film isn’t the titular one, it’s Mordo.
Karl Mordo has a close relationship with the Ancient One, and differs from his comic counterpart, where he’s one of Strange’s greatest foes. Derrickson describes Mordo as a fundamentalist, which makes his character all the more interesting. While Mordo develops a rapport with Strange, his motivations and convictions stay the same throughout. He isn’t swayed by the reality of what’s happening around him, his principles define him, and it’s interesting to see a character change by staying the same throughout the film. Many Marvel films have side characters jump to the aid of the main because they’re the hero, but Mordo’s fundamentalist views allow him to be a much more interesting character.
After pushing Strange’s astral form out of his physical one, the Ancient One sends him through the astral plane. Faithfully bringing Doctor Strange creator Steve Ditko’s comic panels to the screen, what the special effects team manage to create here is the most hallucinatory sequence in the entire MCU. It’s almost indescribable, and will no doubt be the sequence that audiences remember the most. It’s moments like these throughout the film that you see why Marvel has brought in small-time directors to change the formula around. Derrickson’s experience as a horror director gets to shine a little here, but it’s more psychedelic than frightful. It’s without a doubt the best use of special effects in Marvel’s library, and possibly in film all year. It will be a huge injustice if the VFX teams don’t get an Academy Award nomination for this (Industrial Light & Magic, Framestore, Luma Pictures, Method Studios, Rise FX, Crafty Apes and SPOV).
Despite the aforementioned wonderful performances, it’s the villain of the movie that disappoints. My greatest fear came true, and I’m slightly bitter that Mads Mikkelsen has been wasted in his role of Kaecilius, a former student of the Ancient One who has formed a partnership with an entity that wants to destroy the world (yawn). Kaecilius, like Palmer and Wong (Benedict Wong), suffers from a lack of screen time and development, leading to what feels like the idea of a character rather than a character itself. The Yellowjacket to Strange’s Ant-Man, the Whiplash to his Iron Man, the Abomination to his Hulk etc. Strange’s Cloak of Levitation, almost a character in itself, feels more developed than many of the sideline roles, adding a sense of levity to the film.
However, the true villain of the film is its sound mixing. An issue that’s plagued Marvel Studios’ films for the longest time is the forgettable music and motifs. Every once in a while, we’ll get a memorable character theme that you might find yourself humming after you’ve left the cinema. Doctor Strange’s composer Michael Giacchino steals from his own Star Trek theme every now and then in the film, but overall, the score stands tall among the 14 MCU films. Unfortunately you barely get to hear it above the quips and noise of the movie, which is a shame because Giacchino has done such a fine job and no one gets to hear it.
Nevertheless, what our ears miss out on, our eyes make up for. Without a doubt this is the best looking film in the MCU. Cinematographer Ben Davis has worked on two other Marvel Studios films, Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron, movies that share similarities to Doctor Strange in terms of visual effects. Coupled with the fantastic work from various special effects companies, Doctor Strange provides dazzling and fantastic visuals that serve a purpose to the story, opposed to just being made for the film’s third act finale. This conclusive, bombastic fight serves as a direct response to criticism brought by other superhero films, where a city block, country or planet is completely destroyed. This time, an entire city gets completely rebuilt, with the help of Strange’s magic. It’s a refreshing fight to watch, and the film would have suffered greatly if it had ended with yet another devastated city block.
Many have described Doctor Strange as Marvel’s riskiest film, but I disagree. On paper, Marvel’s Doctor Strange is one of their safest films. After successfully bringing the likes of Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor to the screen, it seems like they have complete confidence in translating anything to the big screen. However, Doctor Strange opens its own corner in the Marvel Cinematic Universe while at the same time expands it as a whole, opening a whole new realm for the studio to explore. Introducing pure magic to a franchise heavily reliant on explaining everything with technology provides a refreshing tone, and Derrickson manages to create a film that feels largely disconnected from the Avengers universe. Doctor Strange succeeds in creating a self-contained adventure, with no need of knowledge about the past 13 films, but at the same time, stretching that Marvel formula into something different. The roots are still there, namely the forgettable villain and predictable origin story, but after experiencing the film’s wondrous visuals, you might just start to forget about all that.
Feature image credit: Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.