In 2015, Marvel surprised sceptical movie-goers with Ant-Man, a film which proved the powerhouse studio could still combine an unknown character with an apparently mid-tier actor/director combo and somehow produce a winning movie. This year, Doctor Strange is their attempt to do the same thing.
At this point it feels almost moot to say that any doubt in Marvel’s ability to deliver is undeserved. Not only did they put together a typically well-oiled machine of a film, they also managed to produce one which gets some distance away from the homogeneity that has afflicted the studio’s recent offerings – and not just because this one isn’t peppered with gratuitous guest stars.
For Doctor Strange is the first Marvel movie in a while that feels like its own thing. Textually, it’s nothing especially new – it’s Harry Potter by way of Marvel, showcasing a secret world alongside our own where wizards chuck spells around and dabble with weird artifacts while trying to save humanity. So far, so familiar. But aesthetically? Put away your mind-duster because this film’s going to leave your brain cobweb-free for months to come.
Director Scott Derrickson comes from a tradition of horror, and perhaps that’s why Doctor Strange seems to walk the line between unsettling and awe-inspiring. The visuals are dizzying, and most viewers will forgive the film a lot just because it’s delivering something they haven’t seen before. At times the aggressively kaleidoscopic effects almost hurt things – they occasionally seem to happen just because they can, rather than to serve a story purpose – but the weirdness is also endlessly inviting. Accompanied by Michael Giacchino’s superb lite-prog score, it’s a truly cinematic experience. See it in IMAX. See it in 3D. Plug it directly into your eyes if they’ll let you.
The only valid comparison points for the physics-bending action scenes come from anime and computer games, which until now have been light years beyond blockbuster cinema in terms of their visual imagination. Grounded is not a word you’d use to describe a single fight in this movie. Each one mostly combines the graceful choreography of Hong Kong cinema with intricate, high-resolution CGI. They just beg you to stay completely rapt.
Given all that, it’s a real shame that the story itself isn’t tighter. For most of its runtime Doctor Strange plays like a precis of an origin, hitting all the necessary beats for us to understand what’s going on but never quite lingering. It’s all a bit like watching a montage of exposition and revelatory moments. Where Iron Man was ingeniously concise, Doctor Strange feels a little too aggressively pruned.
Cumberbatch also doesn’t quite inhabit the character in the way some previous Marvel actors have taken to their roles. He’s hardly adrift playing Strange, an arrogant genius in the Sherlock Holmes mould – but just as often it feels like he’s playing Young House MD. Where Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are synonymous with their actors, it’s relatively easy to imagine someone else taking on Stephen Strange and doing a good job with it.
The rest of the cast fare better. Chiwetel Ejiofor is great as the loyal student of the Ancient One, Mordo. Benedict Wong’s Wong is an instant comic foil stand-out. Mikkelsen puts in an effective showing as Kaecilius, aka Stock Marvel Villain #4 (see also: Ronan, Malekith).
As for the female roles, Rachel McAdams plays romantic lead Christine Palmer and makes the best of what she’s given, which is basically nothing. Really, the idea that a movie like this demands a romantic lead is borderline toxic, and aside from the fact that taking her out of the story would mean there was only one woman in the cast at all, it’s hard to see why she’s here. Strange is already wedded to his work, so she proves an ineffective anchor to his old life. Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One redresses the balance a little, being an expectedly, effortlessly brilliant performance. As usual it’s hard not to come away from the movie thinking that popular culture needs a lot more Ancient Ones and a lot fewer Christine Palmers.
Even accounting for its flaws, perhaps the best way you can praise Doctor Strange is by saying there are parts when it doesn’t feel like a Marvel movie at all. Sure, it’s got the mandated corporate tie-ins, it’s got the somewhat arch tone (spot the ADR jokes, process nerds!) and it’s got the self-mythologising down pat – but it owes surprisingly little to its MCU forbearers. Even the climactic battle is original, both in execution and structure. In the end, what holds the film back is that the boundless imagination it applies to its visuals doesn’t quite extend to its story as well. But there’s still a lot to enjoy here.