Marvel’s latest addition to their cinematic universe comes in the form of a psychedelic sorceror, Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), but does he manage to cast a strong enough spell? Doctor Strange is currently receiving very positive reviews with critics and with fans, the debut already has a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But is it really that good?
The film opens, as most Marvel films do, with the villain. We are introduced to Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) in the first minute as he rips a page out of an ancient book of spells. What follows is a fight between Kaecilius and The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). We are only 3 or 4 minutes into the film and the CGI already looks like it’s not holding up. But, sometimes good films get off to rocky starts and it appears that this is the case with Doctor Strange.
However, the opening does establish a story within that specific field which leads us to meet Stephen Strange, a conceited neurosurgeon whose opinion is the only one that counts. The character comes across as very confident, albeit arrogant and very selfish – which is perhaps ironic considering he saves lives, but more on this later.
Stephen is good with a scalpel but perhaps not as good with people, he works alongside ex- lover Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who he has difficulty expressing his feelings for. These two work very well against each other, their conversations are entertaining and their chemistry is palpable. In fact, Christine is probably one of the most likeable characters to have graced a superhero film in the last two or three years. She may appear to be another Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) but I get the sense she is the exact opposite. It is clear she has unresolved feelings for her colleague but as she rightly puts it “everything is about you, Stephen”.
This is followed by a scene showcasing Stephen’s opulence, he lives in a nice penthouse apartment with a vast array of expensive watches and he drives a Lamborghini. Maybe I am being naive but I’m not sure neurosurgeons make enough money to afford this kind of decadence? Resembling a 2007 James Bond, Strange takes his tuxedo and Lamborghini out for a drive up the mountains only to crash and severely injure himself. This overly dramatic scene is the catalyst to this origin story as his hands no longer have correct mobility and his neurosurgeon dreams are over. However, he learns of a man who has had similar injuries and has been cured. Cue Strange’s descent into the world of mystical arts and yes, more book reading.
Turn and face the Strange
Strange is taken to Kathmandu where he meets The Ancient One and Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), there he is told that he must open his mind up to the realm of possibility. One of the most common phrases of superhero movies is ‘forget everything you think you know’ which sounds a bit dramatic until we are given a scene resembling LSD on vacation. As Stephen catapults through various dimensions, trying desperately hard to keep his breakfast down the audience are hit with fantastic psychedelic visuals that puts the film on par with 2014 hit, Guardians of the Galaxy. It is quite interesting that The Ancient One speaks of different universes and worlds but her question “who are you in this vast multiverse?” could apply to the fact that Strange is a newcomer in the already vast Marvel multiverse.
Strange begins to hone his craft, which are the most entertaining scenes as we want him succeed and become this eponymous character. This is emphasised more by the spectacular acting abilities of Benedict Cumberbatch. I must admit, I have never seen the attraction to the Sherlock actor until now but he takes the role of action hero like a duck to water. His American accent is surprisingly good as well as it did not sound as tight in the trailer. Cumberbatch lights up the screen and the scenes that he does not appear in are weakened.
In other casting news, there has been much controversy over the casting of non-Asian actress Tilda Swinton, however director Scott Derrickson did not want a stereotypical ‘mystic Asian’ character, which has not delighted Chinese fans. However, the addition of Hong Kong and omission of Tibet means that there will likely be a decent box office return in China.
With many Marvel films, the villains motivations are odd and never really seem justifiable. Kaecilius gets some screen time to air his feelings about his lust for immortality and the Dark Dimension but he never makes enough of an impact to even go down as being a prominent villain. Mads is a fantastic actor but unfortunately his character will not be as memorable as some of his previous career starters. Strange takes the advice given to him and manages to rise above his demons to defeat Kaecilius, conquering his ego and selfishness in the process. All is right in the world…
Overall, the films visuals falter the experience as you become aware that you are sitting in a movie theater, many scenes were hard to watch and I wouldn’t be surprised if audiences left with a headache, as I did. Doctor Strange has been in development for 30 years now but with the extensive amounts of CGI, the current phenomenon with wizards and Marvel’s box office reign, this movie couldn’t have come at a better time. This film has not been marketed as greatly as other Marvel films but it is refreshingly different and it stands its ground. Personally, I think Doctor Strange is one of the best Marvel heroes to debut in the last five or six years and if the Thor: Ragnarok post-credit scene is anything to go by, I think we are looking at newcomer of the year.