Last Sunday, I reviewed Doctor Mordrid, an early 1990s B-movie where the scriptwriters lost the rights to Doctor Strange and tried to rewrite the film to get around this, resulting in a somewhat odd but enjoyable movie that was heavily reminiscent of Doctor Strange but without being legally close enough for lawyer-fu to take place. So when Doctor Strange, the real deal turned up in the cinemas this week of course I was eager to see it.
Here’s the thing about Marvel movies by now: the first movie in what is intended to be a franchise is pretty cookie cutter in the story beats. It goes like this: likeable but selfish jerk gets into a grave situation, then gets powers, learns about humility and altruism, turns his life around and becomes a hero, defeats Generic Throwaway Villain and begins a new superpowered career. And Doctor Strange follows this plotline as well: Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon, only in it for his own personal glory and enrichment.
His career is brought to an end when he’s injured in a car accident, giving him trembly hands and causing him to have a self-pitying breakdown, driving away his devoted girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel MacAdams) and leaving him with nothing, before he learns from an old patient (Benjamin Bratt) he turned down of how he was healed at a mystical haven called Khamar-Taj ruled over by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and her lieutenant Mordo (Chwitiel Eijofor).
Strange sets out for Khamar-Taj where he learns how to control mystical forces, comes up against the Ancient One’s former disciple turned evil, Kaecillus (Mads Mikkelsen), learns about how to be a hero and then embraces his destiny as the Sorcerer Supreme. Yeah, not exactly the most original of stories, but here’s the other thing: when it comes to comic book movies, no-one does it better than Marvel, and they don’t let themselves down here either.
What makes the film work is the casting. To start with, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange is brilliantly played, with a lot of Sherlockian arrogance, but as the film goes on and Strange is put through the wringer of life a more sympathetic side emerges, and Cumberbatch plays this well, winning the audience’s sympathy as a broken man before stepping up to play a brilliant, snarky hero who has quite a few hints of Tony Stark about him, but perhaps with more of a self-aware and responsible side than Stark in his first film.
I don’t think the resemblance is an accident, either – once Robert Downey Jr. hangs up his armor, Marvel will need another sarcastic, arrogant hero to tie the MCU together and Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange is it. And, of course, you know that he’s going to be leading the Avengers in years to come.
Kaecillus is pretty much a Generic Throwaway Villain – his plans have to take somewhat of a backseat to the personal development of Strange, but nevertheless Mads Mikkelsen makes the most of what he’s given and plays him with a dry wit that gives him a few good laughs, and makes him more enjoyable than some of the other Generic Throwaway Villains of past Marvel origin films such as Guardians of the Galaxy’s Ronan. I guess you’re never going to steal the show being the cardboard cutout for the newly-born hero to knock down, but Mikkelsen’s performance is nevertheless a good one with what he’s given.
It’s customary with a Doctor Strange review to moan about whitewashing with the Ancient One being played by Tilda Swinton, but I’m not going to. The Ancient One was always going to be a somewhat difficult character to deal with on screen, originating in the ’60s as a dated “Oriental mystical martial arts master” stereotype, so really anything they did with them was always going to attract controversy. Somewhat wisely, Swinton chooses to portray the Ancient One as an otherworldly character who has transcended humanity and all those tiresome human things we like to fight about, and so that sidesteps the issue.
Another problematic character would have been Wong, traditionally Strange’s manservant who serves as his housekeeper and who generally would again have caused controversy if they had kept this aspect for the film. Instead, Benedict Wong plays Wong (yeah, I noticed) as the gruff librarian of Khamar-Taj, and gets some of the film’s biggest laughs in one or two hilarious scenes as him and Strange get acquainted. Wong’s performance as Wong is one of the highlights of the film, although for some reason it reminded me a bit of Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer…
I can’t really talk about Chwietiel Eijofor’s Mordo without going into heavy spoiler territory, although I will say that I look forward to seeing his evolution in the sequel. Eijofor portrays Mordo as a man on almost the opposite journey to Strange, going from having a sense of spirtuality and
So far, we’ve talked about the characters, but what really sets Doctor Strange apart is the fact that the film deals with spirituality and mysticism in a straight-up manner. “Not everything has to make sense” says the Ancient One to Strange, and that’s pretty much the attitude they take here: no hints of technology masquerading as magic here, we’re faced with the real deal and it’s somewhat liberating as Strange travels the different dimensions of the multiverse without having to give the audience a lesson in movie science to try and justify it. There is magic, and there are alternate dimensions, and that’s just the way it is.
And here’s one recommendation I’d definitely make: see this film in IMAX 3D, as 2D and regular 3D won’t do it justice. As the film travels through the different dimensions, the “real world” warps and twists in spectacular fashion, playing with notions of depth and geometry, and I think only IMAX can really capture it at its best. The 3D conversion done by IMAX’s technology seems to offer more than just offering a slightly enhanced depth perception, and the weird and wonderful worlds of Doctor Strange really pop in IMAX. New York, London and Hong Kong bend, twist, warp, tear apart and put themselves back together as Strange tries to cross the world in pursuit of Kaecillus, and it’s definitely some of the best geometry-defying action since Inception.
Also: the stance on spirituality here is somewhat refreshing. We live in a time where it’s considered that anything apart from a strict atheistic materialism is a “childish” worldview, and up until now Marvel has sort of stuck to that view, with even a God, Thor, having to explain that his “magic” is really just highly advanced science. I guess it’s a sign of how confident Marvel are now that the story just presents the idea that the universe has more to it than human perception can see straight up without any apology, and it’s somewhat refreshing to see Strange give a little rant about how the Ancient One is just pushing useless superstition before being shown somewhat dramatically that there’s more out there than he ever thought possible with a spectacular interdimensional journey. I guess I might want to talk about this sort of thing in a separate post, but I enjoyed the contrast with the other Marvel films.
Last but most definitely not least, the soundtrack by Michael Giacchino is awesome. I believe this is Giacchino’s first Marvel film, and rather than the big horns and rousing orchestral fanfares a lot of other superhero films indulge in, Giacchino chooses to embrace the more offbeat and spiritual tone of Doctor Strange with a progressive rock soundtrack that sets it apart from other Marvel films. I’m a fan of Pink Floyd, and I noticed the influence in the end credits theme, which is below. I only have one or two favourite tracks from other Marvel films, but I listened to the entire soundtrack here…
Ultimately, Doctor Strange is probably the best Marvel movie this year, as it somewhat stands apart from Civil War and the now admittedly bloated mythology underlying the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, although there are a few obligatory references to the wider world snuck in to prepare for the inevitable crossover that will come in Avengers: Infinity War. Doctor Strange has a lot of fun exploring its own weird and unique corner of the MCU, and it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays into the rest and how the other characters will react to seeing a man who can flat out defy the laws of reality without apology, something that is outlandish even by the standards of the film’s universe.
tl;dr: Go see Doctor Strange. It’s really good.