Open Your Mind. Change Your Reality.
Dr Stephen Strange [Cumberbatch] is at the very peak of his abilities as a remarkably skilled neurosurgeon. Like many prodigies, his prowess has bred an arrogance and intolerance for others that makes him frankly unbearable. The only person who can seemingly stomach his ego is ex-flame Christine Palmer [McAdams]. Following a devastating car crash, Stephen’s hands are ruined and, in his eyes, the various surgeries and pins placed in his hands are a work of butchery and while no one could have done better, he knows he could have. Facing the possibility that he will never work again, Strange spends his vast fortune undergoing countless experimental procedures before growing so desperate that he turns to mysticism – with extreme reluctance and cynicism. He spends his last remaining dollars traveling to Nepal to seek The Ancient One [Swinton] to heal him but is quickly exposed to a world of higher consciousness and magic that he never knew existed. With the assistance of fellow sorcerer, Mordo [Ejiofor], Strange hones his new abilities and is informed of a threat facing their world at the hands of a former disciple of the master, Kaecilius [Mikkelsen], who, in his grief, believes the world can be free of death by uniting with the dark realm.
Much like Guardians Of The Galaxy, Doctor Strange is a very fringe title. Even with the Thor series, magic is played off as higher science and never fully explored for fear of looking or sounding stupid (which is highly amusing considering how completely Harry Potter decimated book and box office sales). But following such a strong slew of Marvel’s vigilante/hero titles, this is the perfect opportunity to step outside the typical superhero fare – even if it essentially follows the same formula.
In truth, a lot of this film has an extremely different aesthetic from its fellow franchise releases and not just in the sense of robes and elaborate hand gestures; the cinematography, set design and direction don’t match up to previous Marvel releases, with the subtle contrasting, dark corners and clever shadow work – but for a director who has come from a horror background, this shouldn’t be surprising. Derrickson’s love of the comic is clearly apparent, really leaning in to the weird and whacky dimensional worlds of the source material unabashedly. One of the biggest sins this film thankfully avoids committing would be toning down the obscure in favour of a mainstream-friendly foray into mediocrity.
What’s most impressive is that the film’s grasp doesn’t exceed its reach.. for the most part. There’s far too much ropey CGI leaving muddy footprints over every major release these days but the majority of the digital effects presented here are genuinely impressive and spellbinding in their contorted madness. That’s not to say there isn’t a fair amount of plasticien uncanny-valley stuff but in light of everything going on, it plays out nicely, giving us a visually pleasing treat. And with the addition of Michael Giacchino’s trippy score generating a hybrid melody of Pink Floyd, waning sitars, gothic harpsichord notes and something akin to the horns of his rebooted Star Trek theme, we’re finally at a stage where the music accompanying a Marvel release has as much of a presence and personality as the on-screen visuals. I can only hope Giacchino will be a more prominent feature alongside Henry Jackman and we can address this glaring discrepancy once and for all.
It would be wrong to say that the performances ground the more bombastic elements, more that they warp and shift to an appropriate level to mirror the esoteric setting and substance while the calibre of acting talent on display adds a weight and relatable realism to the content. The three standouts are the central trinity of master and two lead students: Strange, Mordo and the Ancient One. I didn’t exactly support the idea of Cumberbatch portraying Strange, feeling like it was a very safe and obvious choice. But his embodiment of the arrogance and natural deftness pays off wonderfully. To my mind, the worst thing that could happen would be to create a completely likeable Strange – the Sorcerer Supreme really needed to be a bit of an arsehole with a sense of reckless fun – like a magical Tony Stark minus the libido – and that much comes across. Ejiofor’s Mordo is also a really good call, bringing on an incredibly talented individual who can not only bring an exceptional amount of depth and presence to a role but also a delightfully disturbing combination of calm calculation and underlying darkness stemming from a murky past. And then there’s Tilda Swinton who exudes strength, power and wisdom with a twist of comic relief.
**Spoiler for non-comic readers at the very end of this paragraph**
But for every positive, Doctor Strange falls into the pitfalls of every single Marvel cinematic release: an underwhelming and underdeveloped villain and love interest. We’ll start with Rachel McAdams solely because her character is the absolute worst thing about this movie. McAdams is a more than competent actress who has proven herself time and again yet her presence here is so insultingly pointless. I get the idea of a link to the past which serves as a simultaneous audience surrogate and anchor for the character but she’s so underutilised and criminally bland. Admittedly, thanks to the actress’ inherent skill, she manages to salvage something out of it but Christine is such a nothingy individual that she could have just as easily hit the cutting room floor and the film would have proceeded largely intact. Then we have Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius. No doubt there was a tie-in comic explaining his origins and motivations but really that should have been in the film. There’s plenty of expositionary dialogue detailing who he is and why he’s doing what he’s doing but we don’t experience it as an audience so we don’t make that emotional connection. Much like McAdams, it’s not that Mikkelsen does a bad job, just that the script doesn’t really give him much to do outside of the henchman role. Where Marvel has truly excelled with villains is with their Netflix shows. The complexity of these individuals and the fact one can almost sympathise or relate to them makes them much more interesting and engaging – it’s the reason Loki works so well. At the same time I have to admit that this movie makes the same mistake by giving us a disposable villain but also gives us a really engaging and properly motivated villain by the narrative’s close. Because as much as this is an origin story for our titular hero, it’s also an origin story for what will become his greatest adversary. So I have high hopes this has set up an incredibly strong and promising future for the character.
As a first step into a broader world, Doctor Strange opens a range of possibility for the wider Marvel universe. I’m immensely worried about the strength and implications of the Eye Of Agamotto and the core that powers it (in a narrative, writing yourself into a corner, sort of way) but I have faith there’s a larger plan at work here. As a standalone this is a very fun, very different release that has timed itself perfectly and nails one of the MCU’s major genre blindspots and I am extremely excited to see this newly introduced character mixing with the already established heroes.
28th October 2016
The Scene To Look Out For:
Marvel films are rife with cheeky humour and while this film felt like it had a significantly reduced amount of it, when it was utilised, it worked wonderfully. There’s so much one can do to accentuate humour when dealing with the mystical arts and the combination of Strange’s arrogant skepticism and learning curve served as brilliant fodder. Two minor incidents that come to mind is Strange very cinematically conjuring crackling shields only to have one fizzle into nothing. He looks on, disappointed and annoyed before shaking his hand, trying to get it to reignite. Then there’s the solo name joke that doesn’t work as well as the film would like but hits a huge high when Wong is sitting in the library listening to Beyonce while Strange opens portals and steals several tomes to peruse.
The two major changes from the comic are to the Ancient One and Wong. As a fan of the comic, these are extremely welcome alterations as the original incarnations were.. frankly.. racially insensitive products of their time. Updating the most powerful sorcerer, making her a woman was nice and Swinton delivers the oh-so-tired mentor role with a hint of freshness; even if she’s doing the exact same thing that every other cinematic mentor has ever done. Wong has been upgraded from faithful dogsbody to drill sergeant and while he can still have the same relationship with Strange, he doesn’t need to just be the Asian Alfred, doomed to simply answer the door, make tea and protect Strange’s body while he’s projecting in the astral realm. He also gets my second favourite line which is, “Knowledge is not forbidden at Karakesh, only certain practices.”
“We never defeat our demons, Mordo. We only learn to live above them”
In A Few Words:
“A fun, exhilarating, psychedelic romp thus far unseen in the shared Marvel universe with some exceptionally bold visuals, keen direction and charming performances”