In the spectrum of fiction, technology and magic are traditionally diametrically opposed. And yet, there are a lot of similarities to be found between the Marvel Cinematic Universes’ 2008 high-tech trailblazer Iron Man and its latest magical offering Doctor Strange. Both are pure origin stories, for the most part devoid of the trappings of a shared universe, which tell of an arrogant but endlessly charismatic, immaculately goateed leading man who is forced to overcome great personal calamity that robs him of his privilege, driving him to learn new insights about himself and his world and in the process become a super hero. All while kicking some bad guy butt in the most visually cool way possible.
Now recipe familiarity has been a constant criticism of the MCU, but I guess if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Not that Doctor Strange lacks in originality though – more on that later – but it’s hard to not see that right as Kevin Feige and the rest of Marvel bigwigs will soon need to start contemplating a Robert Downey Jr.-less version of their cinematic universe (he is 51-years old, after all), along comes another hero that can out-snark Iron Man while also shouldering the dramatic aspects with ease.
Oscar-nominee Benedict Cumberbatch is your new RDJ here as the eponymous Stephen Strange M.D., a gifted neurosurgeon who lords his skills over everybody, including his ex-flame and coworker Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). But Strange’s world literally comes crashing down as a high speed car accident leaves his hands – the most prized tools of his craft – a jigsaw mess of metal pins and scars. When conventional medicine continuously fails to repair his busted appendages, a desperate and destitute Strange turns to more unconventional means, leading him to the mysterious Kamar-Taj in Nepal. It is here that he stumbles across friendly Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who takes him to meet the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), an androgynous Celtic guru who claims that she can teach Strange the magical means of repairing not just his broken body, but also his spirit.
Despite dismissing talk of the spiritual as nothing other than so much mystic mumbo jumbo, Strange is given a brief glimpse into the supernatural mysteries of the cosmos. And on the back of that third-eye-opening tumble down the proverbial rabbit hole, he accepts tutelage from this “Sorcerer Supreme”. But while the newcomer learns about his new reality from musty spell books curated in Kamar-Taj’s library by the stoic Wong (Benedict Wong), a bloody and magical war rages on in the spaces between worlds, stoked by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a disgraced Master of the Mystic Arts, and his deadly acolytes.
Director/writer Scott Derrickson effortlessly transitions here from micro-budgeted horror fare like Sinister to gonzo superheroics the likes of which you’ve almost certainly never seen before. And also need to see now on the biggest and best screen possible! I rapturously applaud the seemingly unending army of visual effects artists listed in the credits (which you have to sit through for the movie’s two rather important credit scenes) who brought to life Derrickson and co-screenwriter C. Robert Cargill’s trippy vision, as they stage action sequences in/above/below/next to/through Escher-like displays of mindboggling fractal architecture. Imagine if the scope of the hallway fight in Inception was expanded to encompass an entire city… and you had consumed a probably unsafe amount of psychotropics before viewing it, and you would start to have an idea of all the gloriously crazy sequences in store for you. Making full use of the eye-popping potential of the source material, Derrickson gives us some insanely inventive pieces of filmmaking here, not just for comic book movies, but blockbusters in general.
But besides for the mind-melting visuals and out of this world action beats – oh, and Michael Giacchino’s magnificently retro score, the first truly anthemic piece of Marvel music – Doctor Strange also boasts a horde of fine actors doing their thing. Cumberbatch simply owns the screen, comfortably lending Strange all the initial preening pride, the eventual humility and the unexpected levity of Strange. Zippy one-liners are very much the unofficial Marvel “House Style” now, but it’s still surprising just how funny this movie is. Even the ethereal Tilda Swinton gets in on the act, giving her version of the Ancient One – controversially changed from the traditionally Asian appearance – an instant, relaxed likability. Equally likable is McAdams, even though she doesn’t get that much to do. Ejiofor though proves once again that he is a thespian powerhouse, and when shared scenes between himself and Cumberbatch dip into more dramatic territory, the screen positively bristles and crackles with energy.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Mikkelsen, who gets to be central in the movie’s most thrilling topsy-turvy brawls, but is otherwise wasted. True to Marvel-villain-not-named-Loki form, his Kaecilius is nothing more than a collection of good make-up effects plastered over flimsy characterization. Also of criticism is that Strange’s leap from fumbling student of the mystic arts to magical ass-kicker of note happens a bit too rapidly for my tastes. There are also a couple of continuity plot holes as grave injuries suddenly dissipate when inconvenient to the plot. But when it comes to movies, I’m a firm believer of the whole being capable of being more than just the sum of its parts though, and that is definitely the case here.
Doctor Strange and its laws of physics scoffing set pieces and psychedelic plunges into all things cosmic and colourful is Marvel at its ambitious, confident best. It’s not perfect as it definitely repeats some past mistakes, but it is a fun, trippy, head-over-heels tumble right into the extreme esoteric world of the supernatural that the comic book film studio once had a Thunder God frantically tap dance around and now embrace with much appreciated glee. Iron Man may have been our entrance into this universe – a rather restrained entrance in retrospect – but Doctor Strange is our first real introduction to the wilder multiverse and all its myriad marvels and I can’t wait to explore more of it.
Last Updated: November 1, 2016