Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Rachel McAdams (Mean Girls), Benedict Wong (The Martian), Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man), Benjamin Bratt (Demolition Man), Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale), Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer)
Director: Scott Derrickson (Deliver Us from Evil)
Writers: Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) and Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill (Sinister)
Runtime: 1 hour 55 minutes
Release Date: 25 October (UK), 4 November (US)
OK, now Marvel Studios is really pushing it. They’ve made a general audience accept Norse gods, talking trees and shrinking people, and now they’re throwing sorcery into the mix. Doctor Strange is a character that really should not work on the big screen given the complex nature of its premise and visuals. Adapting Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s kaleidoscopic interpretation of the mystic realms into live action is a daunting task, and in the wrong hands it could easily end up in Green Lantern territory. Thankfully, Marvel has once again managed to accomplish the impossible by not only bringing the Sorcerer Supreme to life, but also making a visually dazzling and solidly entertaining movie in the process.
The basic story of Doctor Strange is probably the most staid aspect of the film, but providing a simple groundwork for what is otherwise a really trippy movie is a smart move. Basically functioning like a mash-up of the plots of Iron Man (rich jerk rediscovers his humanity and becomes a superhero) and Batman Begins (guy travels to Asia looking for guidance and training from a monk-like order), it’s a fairly standard superhero origin story but it’s effectively told and all the unique trappings help keep it fresh. Like Thor, the film manages to bridge the gap between science and magic and explains the mystical arts Strange learns over the course of the story in a breezy fashion. All of these supernatural elements create a great sandbox for the film to play in, resulting in some incredibly creative and outright bizarre sequences. The film has a really great pace to it mainly thanks to exciting action set pieces and a lot of well-timed humour, but it does have some humanity and grounds itself just enough with some genuine human drama. It doesn’t exactly break the mould for Marvel from a storytelling perspective, but it makes up for it by doing everything incredibly well and it had me smiling in amazement throughout its runtime. It mostly stands on its own from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe barring a few cute nods, but the potential for this corner of the world to become prominent in the future is abundantly clear and should not be skipped by anyone wanting the full picture on this ever-expanding domain.
Benedict Cumberbatch seems born to play Doctor Stephen Strange, and after seeing his performance I can’t imagine why they would have considered anyone else for the role. He plays Strange as arrogant and self-impressed, eager to crack a joke even if purely for his own amusement, which makes him a fun character to watch even when we’re not supposed to like him. Cumberbatch does sometimes look like he’s stealing from Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark shtick, but he brings his own personal sense of charm to the character and that’s what ultimately sets him apart. He’s certainly the shining star of the movie but the supporting cast is equally excellent all around, even though some of them do get short shrift. Chiwetel Ejiofor provides a fascinating performance as Baron Mordo, bringing humanity to the character rarely seen and sets him up perfectly for bigger things in future movies; this is exactly what I wanted from Sinestro in Green Lantern and didn’t get. Benedict Wong is equally fantastic as Wong, who provides a lot of humour with his deadpan delivery and is certainly a step-up from the outdated interpretation from the original comic books. Tilda Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One was the cause of a lot of controversy prior to release, but she plays the character with such an air of mysticism that it’s kind of hard to pin down if she even has a racial or sexual identity. It’s a unique view on the character that I personally enjoyed, and it circumvents the allegations well enough that it didn’t bother me as I watched it.
Unfortunately, everyone else feels a little marginalised. Rachel McAdams is strong when she’s there as Christine Palmer, helping to provide an emotional core and moral compass to Strange, but story wise she doesn’t have a huge impact on the film. Michael Stuhlbarg and Benjamin Bratt are equally redundant, with Stuhlbarg mainly serving as the butt of a few jokes and Bratt’s only real purpose is to get Strange started on his journey; why hire such great and recognisable faces for such thankless roles? Marvel has always had problems creating iconic villains, and they still haven’t quite fixed that problem with Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius. Mikkelsen’s performance is strong, the character’s motivation has some sense to it (even if it is once again about destroying the world), and he has a lot of great antagonistic chemistry with Cumberbatch, but his limited screen time doesn’t allow for much development and he ultimately feels more like an obstacle rather than a nemesis for Strange.
What Doctor Strange needed to nail above all else was translating Steve Ditko’s incredible artwork into something tangible, and this film succeeds in that area with flying colours. This is a gorgeous movie to behold on every technical level, going beyond even what the Thor movies managed to accomplish by creating such a vivid and fascinating world out of the most batsh*t ideas ever. The design of the sets and the costumes are absolutely spot-on, with Strange’s iconic costume brought to life in perfect detail without at all looking ridiculous, and Michael Giacchino’s score beautifully combines the bombast of his Star Trek compositions with Eastern influences and psychedelic rock to brilliant effect. But what impresses most of all are the visual effects, which generate all these different dimensions in ways I’ve never seen in a big budget blockbuster. It is a hallucinatory and jaw-dropping experience to watch any time characters begin shifting reality and breaking physics, and whenever it’s used for action scenes it results in some of the most inventive and outright fun fight sequences in recent memory. If it weren’t for The Jungle Book providing stiff competition, I’d say give the VFX team behind this movie the Oscar right now.
Doctor Strange is yet another excellent addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon, bringing a much-beloved cult figure of the comic books to the screen in a respectful and awesome to behold fashion. What it lacks in story originality it more than makes up for with aesthetic creativity, and the cast gives it their all even when the characters aren’t all there from a development standpoint. If you’re a Marvel junkie, you were probably going to see it anyway but now you know it’s more than worth it. If you’re on the fence I’d say definitely give it a try, especially if you’re up for something visually arresting (side note: the 3D is actually well worth it on this one). Even if you’re totally sick of Marvel films, I think it has enough to make it stand out. Essentially, my point is: GO SEE THIS MOVIE!!!
FINAL VERDICT: 9/10