After a cityscape bending opening fight sequence teasing us with what’s to come, we settle in and meet Dr. Stephen Strange: an arrogant, ambitious, and flashy neurosurgeon who due to an accident must go on a journey of discovery. Initially hoping to find a way to heal his all-important hands, he ends up mixed up in an inter-dimensional conspiracy.
Doctor Strange is skilfully directed by Scott Derrickson, who manages to get all his moving parts in order, from the dramatic scenes where we see Strange’s journey from rational thinker to mystical sorcerer to the amazing use of special effects to create this magical world which plays with time and space. Derrickson has an eye for the details, finding moments of real humour in amongst all the astral projections and action sequences, managing to keep this tale grounded in its human stories.
The real star of the show though is the visual design, which pushes the boundaries of the Marvel Universe excitingly further out whilst offering a connection between the earthbound adventures of the Avengers with the worlds of Asgard and Guardians of the Galaxy. Though heavily influenced by M.C. Escher, by way of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Derrickson manages to make them his own by upping the ante, particularly for the action scenes. Though the DMT and Mescaline influenced visuals are used sparingly, they are very effective and often come breathtakingly out of the blue. A 2001: A Space Odyssey-inspired sequence early on when the Ancient One (a shaven-headed Tilda Swinton) first shows Strange the limitations of his reality and a gives him a taste of the infinite is particularly enchanting and worth revelling in on the biggest screen you can find in its full three-dimensional glory.
Cumberbatch gives a strong performance as Strange and although he doesn’t quite measure up to the raw charisma of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, this isn’t some boring po-faced sorcerer. Cumberbatch brings charm and humour to a character that could be played far too straight, and the film manages to play up to his strengths as a thespian par excellence whilst at the same time shrewdly undercutting it, which leads to some great laughs and interplay between various characters. Strange’s biggest strength is his resolve, which is tested to its limits in the neat way he defeats the big bad at the end in a nod to a very different time-bending film which it would be too much of a spoiler to name. You can’t help but anticipate how his powers will be utilized in future Avengers instalments.
Cumberbatch is supported by an absolutely stellar (though in some cases underused) cast. Swinton brings an otherworldly and ethereal quality to the Ancient One as she puts Strange through his paces and puts him on the path to enlightenment. Chiwetel Ejiofor isn’t given a whole lot to do but his fellow sorcerer Mordo hints at more in future instalments. Benedict Wong is wonderful as Strange’s badass librarian Wong and though he doesn’t appear much, Wong manages to bring brilliance to each moment. Rachel McAdams plays the rote part of love interest Dr Christine Palmer with her usual innate charm but other than help set up Strange as a character she isn’t given much to chew on. Mads Mikkelsen is another great talent who is criminally wasted here as the main villain Kaecilius. Though Mikkelsen is still great as ever and there is fun to be had in his interactions with Strange it feels a bit of a wasted opportunity. Marvel’s films often suffer from underwhelming villains, but it’s particularly frustrating here due to the level of talent on board.
Doctor Strange follows the same beats as many a superhero origin story but manages to stand out thanks to some flourishes of mind-blowing imagery and a strong stable of actors. Adding mysticism to the Marvel universe, Doctor Strange further extends Marvel’s run of excellent (bar the odd miss) superhero films.
Words by Hamza Mohsin