Has Marvel Studios once again translated one of their heroes from comic page to cinema screen successfully or is Doctor Strange, the master of Mystic Arts, too weird a character to make the transition?
It’s hard to believe now but when Robert Downey Jr first donned his Iron Man Mark 1 armour, Tony Stark was considered something of a second or even third rate Marvel superhero, far behind the more popular X-Men, Spider-man and of course the ever recognisable Captain America. 8 years, 13 movies and a whole cinematic universe later Marvel studios tries to repeat the same trick of rning a less well known her to the screen (well, repeat it again after 2015’s Ant-Man) and bring the sorcerer supreme to the cineplex.
After a car accident irreparably damages the nerves in his greatest, most precious instruments; his hands, Doctor Stephen Strange becomes obsessed with restoring his gift and his life. After exhausting his wealth and the patience of his friends (mostly Rachael McAdams’ Christine Palmer), in desperation Strange seeks out more alternative solutions.
After finding a group of mystics, led by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Strange reluctantly comes to believe in their mystical powers and begs them to teach him. Pulling energy from other dimensions The Ancient One and her allies can travel across the world in an instant, separate their spirits from their bodies and travel the astral plane and even forge weapons made of pure energy. While his training goes hilariously badly at first, Strange slowly comes to understand that these powers are not just for show, or for the benefit of the user. While the Avengers may protect the earth from physical threats, The Ancient One and her associates protect it from spiritual and extra dimensional threats and one of her own, the outcast Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson), is on a mission that threatens all of humanity.
Will Strange learn just enough to return him to the life he once had or will he answer a higher call?
Suppress your ego..
After a slow and pretty grim start (it is an origin story after all) Doctor Strange steps up a gear once Strange gets to Kamar Taj and begins his training with The Ancient One and Chewetel Ejiofor’s Mordo. While director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) aims for visuals that will boggle the mind, unfortunately most of the higher dimensions Strange visits look like clips of molecular biology and he himself looks a bit like one of those rubbery digital actors from later Matrix films. At least one area looks suspiciously like the macroverse from Ant-man, surely no accident.
While the battles involving mystics manipulating space and matter, folding buildings in on top of themselves, are impressive, you can’t help but be reminded of the first time Inception pulled a similar trick and how much better it worked there. The changes in gravity, again similar to the corridor fight in Inception but raised to much higher stakes, work far better, with the floor suddenly becoming the wall or ceiling mid-fight.
As is sadly par for the course now, 3D viewers may miss a lot of the better action moments as many of the faster close up movements get lost in the blur of 3D.
Cumberbatch continues Marvel’s almost spotless record in casting it’s heroes, even if his American accent can take a little while to get used to. Despite the controversy over the white washing of the ancient one, Tilda Swinton gives exactly the performance you would expect of her; ethereal, inscrutable but still human and with a wicked sense of humour. Chiwetel Ejiofor also provides a winning performance as Strange’s fellow mystic and friend Mordo.
While it’s heroes are almost perfect, Doctor Strange continues Marvel’s worrying habit of weak antagonists. At the beginning of the film Mads Milkkelson’s Kaecilius is already a villain hell bent on performing a forbidden ritual that will doom the world. While our heroes have their characters filled in over the course of the film, he doesn’t develop much more than that. Apart from a few funny exchanges with Cumberbatch, like Christopher Eccleston in Thor the Dark World, Mikkelson is wasted in this role. At least Eccleston had the benefit of at least one memorable henchman in Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Algrim/Kurse. Kaecilius’s followers are interchangeable bad guys in pyjamas and are immediately forgettable.
There is hope however. As fans of the comics know, there is at least one character in the film who only starts down their path to villainy by its end and they could develop into an antagonist to rival even Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.
With friends like these…
Considering the darkness that Doctor Strange can explore, one of the nicer surprises is how light-hearted it all is. Strange’s reactions to the powers of the ancient one and her allies, his training and Rachael McAdams reactions to Strange’s exhibition of the same powers are fantastically funny.
Strange’s interactions with Benedict Wong also provide plenty of funny moments, although thankfully it’s not at his expense. His role is considerably less problematic than the character of Wong in the comics, who was more of a faithful servant to Strange, rather than the equal colleague he is here. Special mention should also go to Strange’s cloak of Levitation, it too being much more of a character than in the comics (yes his cloak is a character).
Ties to the greater cinematic universe are relatively sparse but where they do turn up they are very welcome. Eagle eyed viewers will see the Avenger’s tower in the New York skyline and as should be expected by now an infinity stone is mentioned. A mid-credits sequence also ties into one of the upcoming phase 4 films, and seems to hint that Strange may have an important role the play there (and I’m not talking about Avengers: Infinity War). There is a second “Sting” after the main credits have finished so audiences are reminded to stay seated for the whole performance.
Thinking outside the box
The filmmakers deserve praise for avoiding the standard finale of a big superhero battle. Instead Strange defeats his enemies in a much more appropriate (but still satisfying) manner for a master of the dark arts.
Doctor Strange is a fine addition to the Marvel Cinematic universe, with Cumberbatch fitting into the role as if it were a magical cloak tailored just for him.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton
Directed by: Scott Derrickson