Marvel’s first big release of 2016; Captain America: Civil War, was a film that saw the studio operating at the forefront of modern cinematic serialisation. A film that makes few provisions for potential new franchise viewers, all but assuming everyone watching is already completely familiar with its characters and what they’ve got up to previously (which is, let’s be honest, fair enough at this point). It’s an interesting surprise to see then that for their second major film of the year, Doctor Strange, they’ve gone in the opposite direction with a film that, bar a brief couple of name-drops easily stands alone.
That’s not to say that Doctor Strange feels out of place at all for the MCU, the tone enforced upon all of their movies is very much present and correct, blending high-stakes superhero goings-on with character-based comedy. It’s put to good effect here for the most part, there are a number of humorous moments that all land very well, both visual and verbal gags highlight the film through to its final sequence.
It is though, yet another origin story. Now there’s nothing inherently bad about that (my favourite Marvel movie is an origin story after all) but they do feel rather over-familiar at this point. The titular Doctor is a master New York neurosurgeon named Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who suffers a car accident in which he receives irreversible nerve damage to his hands, effectively ending his career. Chasing a remote lead in desperation, he travels to Nepal to try and learn how to heal himself from a woman called only ‘The Ancient One’ (Tilda Swinton), and ultimately finds himself learning of mystical arts and other dimensions.
It differs enough from some of the more familiar superhero origins in that he’s not chosen to be a hero, no does he seek to become one. He’s only trying to look after his own self-interests and his becoming heroic ultimately comes about naturally through the progression of what he learns. That’s not to say that Doctor Strange has much to truly stand out from the crowd of superhero movies, but it’s easily solid and enjoyable enough.
One way that Marvel have operated a little differently here though is in casting their leading man. For the first time in years, arguably ever, they’ve looked to have cast an established star with drawing power rather than an up-and-comer. It proves to be a sensible one though, Marvel may be enough of a brand now that it’ll never matter how well known the characters they chose to put on film are but Benedict Cumberbatch’s fan base spreads far and wide (I’ve spoken to 2 people just this week for example who don’t care for superhero movies but are going to this one purely because of him).
The slight risk Doctor Strange runs on paper is having a central character who’s too similar to a few others, most obviously Tony Stark in the very smart, very talented yet very arrogant stakes (not to mention the facial hair). That’s never an issue when watching this though, in fact the character he most resembles at the start, aided to by him being a medical doctor played by a slim, esteemed British actor adopting an American accent is Dr House. Cumberbatch is fantastic in the role though, his charisma shining through Dr Stephen Strange’s moments of selfishness, humility and eventual heroism making him always a compelling protagonist. The movie relies on him to carry it and he does a sterling job, he’s yet another spot on casting choice by Marvel, and honestly I hope he and Tony Stark have some kind of encounter in Avengers 3 (he was name-dropped by Stark previously after all).
Cumberbatch being centre stage throughout does take some of the spotlight away from the impressive group of supporting characters the movie possesses though. In an unlikely 12 Years a Slave reunion, Chiwetel Ejiofor is saddled with the less showy role of no-nonsense fellow magician Mordo, he’s dependably solid but it sometimes feels as if the movie deliberately has made him less interesting to keep Strange the focus. Benedict Wong on the other hand gets less screen time but delivers a number of great comic relief moments as the Ancient One’s librarian, also called Wong. As the Ancient One herself, I feel I expected something a little more unusual after learning that Tilda Swinton had been cast, who uncharacteristically just gives a rather straightforward performance. Maybe Swinton has just set too high standards for herself?
Rachel McAdams however, gets stuck with the role of a fellow doctor in Strange’s New York hospital. She’s a former, and appears to be being set us as a potential future love interest for him, but in the film she’s just someone he calls upon whenever he needs help. It’s a pretty thankless role for McAdams and I can imagine many viewers taking issue with the way she’s used here, introduced as a contemporary of Strange’s and then being completely side-lined.
One continual issue the Marvel films have that Doctor Strange does not avoid, is their much-discussed villain problem. I know I feel I have to write about this every time a new Marvel movie comes out but with this one it’s even more disappointing considering that they’d cast Mads Mikkelsen, one of the best actors working today as their Strange’s foe. Now obviously Mikkelsen’s not going to be bad in the role, he isn’t and he does the best he can with it but his role as Kaecilius, a master magician and former ally of the Ancient One, is just nothing on paper. It’s sad to think that Mikkelsen’s contribution to the biggest franchise in the world right now is going to be a forgettable bad guy. Relatedly, DTV action star Scott Adkins is similarly wasted as a nameless henchman, getting one decent fight scene before swiftly exiting the movie.
The other major problem I’ve frequently complained about with Marvel movies is so many of them having the same giant aerial CGI-addled, destruction filled finales. While this one does bear some similarities to that it also manages to feel completely fresh. The manner in which Strange ultimately takes on the world-threatening problem is, original, just about makes sense in context and even plays as something of a comedy scene without ever undermining the actual threat level. It’s quite a novel way to close out a superhero movie and I applaud Doctor Strange for going in that direction.
Incorporated in this is the other real strength to Doctor Strange; its eye-popping visual effects. Armed with a Marvel budget, director Scott Derrickson (best known for hit and miss horror movies) stages a number of hugely impressive set-pieces. It’s not just the impeccable visualisation of magic and casting spells in fight scenes; it’s the manipulation of the environment. Several magicians are able to seemingly upend and fold sections of the city, then jump between them. Think Inception times ten. This film has the most remarkable visual invention of any Marvel movie so far.
While it does, as I said, easily work as a stand-alone, the other task required of Doctor Strange is to introduce the more mystical side of the Marvel Universe to the MCU, which it does a fine job of. It leaves me curious if unsure how any of this is going to blend in with everything else come the two-part Avengers 3, but it gives me no reason to doubt Marvel either on that front. After Civil War, there was some worry that the MCU might be getting a little over-crowded, but Doctor Strange proves to be a welcome addition to it.