Action, Astral plane, Baron Mordo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cloak of Levitation, Drama, Fantasy, Mads Mikkelsen, Magic, Marvel, Marvel Cinematic Universe, Rachel McAdams, Review, Scott Derrickson, Sorcerer Supreme, The Ancient One, Tilda Swinton
D: Scott Derrickson / 115m
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins
Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a gifted neurosurgeon. He’s also an arrogant pain in the ass. His ego is on a par with Tony Stark’s, and he enjoys reminding people just how good he is. But one rainy evening, Strange’s car ends up in the river and his hands are so badly damaged that he’ll never be able to operate again. Angry and full of self-pity, Strange learns of a man who suffered a severed spine and was paralysed from the chest down, but who somehow managed to walk again. Strange tracks the man (Bratt) down, and is told of a monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, where he learned how to walk again. Strange travels there and meets The Ancient One (Swinton), a mystic who teaches him that their plane of existence is one of many, and that Strange must let go of everything he thinks he knows in order to achieve “enlightenment”.
Strange proves to be an eager and willing (if still slightly sceptical) pupil. He learns how to cast spells, how to travel from one place to another by visualising it in his mind and creating a portal through which to get there, and the existence of a former pupil, Master Kaecilius (Mikkelsen), who believes he can gain immortality by helping a creature from the Dark Dimension, Dormammu, take over the Earth. As Strange’s powers grow, Kaecilius begins attacking the three sanctums that help keep Dormammu and his like from entering our world. Aided by another Master, Baron Mordo (Ejiofor), Strange attempts to stop Kaecilius from bringing about the end of the world; he also receives help from an unlikely source: the Cloak of Levitation, which chooses Strange as its master.
But the London sanctum falls to Kaecilius’s onslaught, and he moves on to attack the sanctum in Hong Kong. Strange and Mordo arrive too late to avoid its destruction and the arrival of Dormammu in our world, but Strange has an idea that will counter-act all the death and destruction that has followed in Dormammu’s wake. If he fails, however, it will mean the end of all life on Earth…
Another Marvel movie, another origin story. But Stephen Strange has always been the odd character out in the Marvel Universe (cinematic or otherwise), a humbled physician redeemed by the power of magic and able to deal with the kind of villains that would give the likes of Iron Man and Captain America more than a run for their money. (Not that Strange is in any immediate danger here; Kaecilius isn’t exactly the most threatening villain Marvel has come up with, but he is good at running a lot.) With Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe now under way, this gives Marvel the opportunity to add fresh characters to the roster, and take their ongoing series of movies in a new direction.
But is it any good? Well, predictably, the answer is Yes – for the most part. The standard Marvel formula is firmly in place, although there is less humour to be had this time round, and while the template is tweaked here and there, most viewers will be reassured that the House of Spidey hasn’t strayed too far from the formula that has made their movies so successful in the past. What is different, and markedly so, is the visual style adopted for the movie. Away from all the mind-bending, Inception-style graphics, Doctor Strange is both darker in tone and look. Even the hospital where Strange works isn’t as brightly lit as you might expect. But it’s not a gloomy movie over all, it’s just that for once, Marvel have realised that – scenes involving the Cloak of Levitation aside, and Strange’s “borrowing” habits in the library – this needs to be a serious piece above all.
Strange’s arrogance, and then his anger, in the beginning gives Cumberbatch the opportunity to play unlikeable with an unexpected fierceness. One scene in particular with McAdams as Strange’s one-time significant other, Christine Palmer, sees the actor deliver cruel lines of dialogue in a way that hasn’t been done before in a Marvel movie (he’s the hero and he’s being delberately objectionable). Even when he begins to accept that magic really does exist, he’s still an egotist, making snarky, caustic comments, but thanks to the script – by Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, and C. Robert Cargill – he’s also on a journey of self-discovery, and this comes across more and more effectively as the movie progresses.
With the main character in good hands (Cumberbatch inhabits the role with his customary panache, and even slips in an Alan Rickman tribute for those paying attention), it’s a shame that the rest are painted in such broad strokes. Baron Mordo, Strange’s arch-nemesis in the comics, is here very much a secondary character whose time will come in a later movie, while The Ancient One, despite being well-played by Swinton, is burdened with some astonishingly po-faced dialogue (“I spent so many years peering through time… looking for you.”) that you start to wonder if the half-smile Swinton adopts at times is in acknowledgment of how daft some of her lines truly are. As mentioned before, Mikkelsen’s master-turned-bad is not one of Marvel’s best villains, while McAdams is sidelined for much of the movie, though at least she’s not there as a damsel in need of being rescued.
The visuals are, unsurprisingly, stunning. The folding of cityscapes and the weird monstrosities glimpsed in the Dark Dimension are both equally impressive, but there is one sequence which stands head and shoulders above all the others: when Strange reverses the destruction of the Hong Kong sanctum. If anyone wants a clue as to why Marvel is more successful at the box office, and critically, than DC, then it’s this particular sequence that should be watched for one of the answers. Both DC and Marvel have been guilty of going down the destruction-porn road before, and audiences have begun to voice their dislike of these big, CGI-driven demolition extravaganzas. But here, we don’t see the destruction of the Hong Kong sanctum, just the aftermath, and then, in a complete stroke of genius, we see the destruction in reverse – and it’s so much more effective for being shown in this way. Clearly, someone at Marvel is listening.
Where Stephen Strange will fit into the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe remains to be seen (though a pre-end credits scene points him in one particular direction), and he won’t be back in another solo outing for some time, but as an introduction to a character with so much more to be explored, Doctor Strange has to be considered a success. Like most of Marvel’s output in the last eight years, though, it does have its fair share of pitfalls, and it does stumble at times in trying to simplify the more esoteric aspects of playing with magic, but overall this is an exciting, well-crafted, rewarding, and enjoyable first outing for the future Sorcerer Supreme.
Rating: 8/10 – superb spectacle can’t compensate for some poor decisions when it comes to the secondary characters, or the tangled logic surrounding Kaecilius’ need to bring Dormammu into this world, but these are minor gripes in a movie that takes a challenging character and does him justice from start to finish; by doing more than enough with the formula to make it more interesting, Doctor Strange becomes a movie that contradicts the claim that Marvel are just churning out the same movie over and over again.