Director Scott Derrickson
12A | 1h 55min | Action, Adventure, Fantasy | 25 October 2016 (UK)
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe of superheroes grinds into its ‘third phase’ it is easy to feel cynical about the ‘Marvel method’ - that sense that each of these films is rigidly structured, their aesthetic finely honed according to studio directives. It is widely accepted that these are producer-driven films. Yet the ‘method’ has consistently produced films that have pleased audiences, surprised even skeptical critics, and generated healthy box office. Perhaps one of the reasons for this trifecta of success is the fact that there is a bit of flexibility in the system; every director and writing team who steps up to the plate is given a little leeway to add something new or emphasise a certain element. Thus Iron Man gave us the rapid fire quips of Robert Downey Jnr, whilst Guardians of the Galaxy proved that the MCU could absorb the flippancy dial being turned up to 11 via talking raccoons. Now, Doctor Strange - from director Scott Derrickson and his frequent writing partner C. Robert Cargill - gives us what are almost certainly the most mind-bending, spectacular visuals of the entire series, whilst showcasing the same universal strengths of the Marvel Studio modus operandi, charismatic leading stars, witty banter that shows a willingness to puncture the pomposity, and a fast enough pace to bounce over any potholes in the plot.
With a sense of inevitability surrounding his joining of the Marvel Universe (given he has already basically played a superhero twice over in Sherlock and Star Trek), Benedict Cumberbatch appears here as Stephen Strange; a gifted and wealthy New York-based neurosurgeon who has as much arrogance as he does talent with his hands - which he treats as if they were the digits of a master pianist. Introduced to us swiftly performing miracle medical feats on a patient presumed dead, Strange’s talent, his swagger and plush apartment that he retires to (check his rotating watch drawer), combine to make him something of a Tony “Iron Man” Stark of the medical world. Cumberbatch has screen presence to spare and a nice sense of the theatrical - knowing when to play it big and embrace the ridiculous - which helps cover the fact that his character’s traits and story arc are more than a little similar to that trod by Robert Downey Jnr all those years ago, when the MCU was born. Strange even sports a Stark-like goatee. In short order, his self-possession and career path are blown off course after a car accident ends his medical tenure due to his hands being mangled, leading the bitter survivor to forsake the companionship of his fellow surgeon and ex-lover Christine (Rachel McAdams, making the most of an underwritten role) in order to travel to Kathmandu on some half-assed notion that a healer there has developed a technique to repair nerve damage. It turns out that isn’t quite the case.
Strange soon finds himself in the company of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), an immortal warrior priest who, thanks to Swinton’s lively turn, is a hugely entertaining figure, part mystic and part mischief-maker, who at certain points all but winks at the audience to buy into all this mumbo-jumbo. She, along with the stern Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), take it upon themselves to train Strange in their secret world of magic and alternate dimensions, and introduce him to their Sanctorums (magical fortresses and libraries of arcane knowledge) across the globe which protect against external threats from other planes of existence. Strange also learns to develop his own magical abilities and handle magical artefacts – which includes using sling rings to open wormholes for travel, and sliding into a mirror dimension where the external surroundings can be manipulated in all kinds of crazy ways without any real damage being done to anyone or anything. Strange gets a natty set of robes and a living red cloak in the process, and the training montages allow for plenty of humorous and visually interesting beats between Cumberbatch and Swinton (though Mordo gets a good gag involving wifi passwords too) as Strange progresses from student to master with comic-book-mandated natural ability.
By this point Doctor Strange has already showcased its strongest element: the use of digital effects to create something the Marvel Universe has been lacking for a long time: genuinely imaginative visualisations of super powers and super-powered battles. Maybe it is some kind of house style, maybe it is the fact that the same computer programs keep being used to create the same kind of effects, but the Marvel Universe’s CGI-driven punch ups and world-ending on-screen catastrophes haven’t done much to impress the Smoke Screen for a long time. Novelty has felt sorely lacking. With Derrickson’s film, right from the first time The Ancient One decides to show Strange just what he is missing out on by punching his astral being out of his physical body (one of the many magical techniques that requires a lot of exposition, this being a Marvel movie opening up a whole lot of new doors) the depiction of travelling- and drawing on the power of - alternate dimensions reaches impressive levels of surreality at times. At one point, Strange is flung through what seems to be about 500 different galaxies via portals and wormholes in a sequence that plays like a collision between the stargate scene from Kubrick's 2001, and the works of MC Esher and Jackson Pollock. Here you sense the filmmakers nodding towards the character’s origins in the psychedelic 1960s under the hand of creator Steve Ditko. Add in a vibrant colour palette and vivid costumes, and you have a film truly lovely to look at.
When Strange has to deploy his new talents to fight a former student of the Ancient One gone rogue - Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, playing a rote bad guy hunting a macguffin, and with extra crazy mascara) - their battles in the mirror zone allow for entire New York City blocks to become inverted and buildings to twist into corkscrew shapes, as if the superstructure of the metropolis was being re-arranged like cogs and wheels settling into a new pattern. It is really something to see, and Derrickson wisely doesn’t overcrank the editing or use too many close-ups to prevent you drinking it all in from wide angel shots. Hand to hand combat is also spiced up nicely from the usual punch-and-shoot affairs of the Avengers, with one magical device in the final act allowing combat to occur whilst time around the figures flows in reverse.
There are flaws, many of which seem to be intrinsic to the MCU. For one thing, Marvel’s writers and directors still can’t seem to inject any real charisma or sense of genuine menace into their villains, Tom Hiddleston as the powerful-but-petulant trickster Loki still seems to be the exception to the rule. Villains remain merely obstacles to get the hero to where he needs to be. Doctor Strange won’t be the film to correct the gender imbalance in the Marvel filmography either, though Tilda Swinton’s highly likeable turn here might help blunt the charges that her casting in a role known to be Asian in the comics mythology was racially insensitive. There are notable pauses in the narrative for massive exposition dumps, which to be fair were probably unavoidable given how this film expands the MCU in probably the most dramatic way since the first Thor film, though exactly how this revelation of alternate dimensions and reality-eating monsters will gel with the Asgardian understanding of the organisation of the universe that we saw in the Thor films remains to be seen. It is probably best not to think too much about it, and keep in mind that comics mythology at times can resemble a stack of carbon copy sheets roughly stapled together. When creators need to serve a story, they will create a new wrinkle in the canon, and open another door previously unheard of into new parallel worlds that could well disappear from continuity with a decade. But despite all this, Doctor Strange proves that as it enters its third phase, the Marvel machine remains well-oiled.