Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams Directed by: Scott Derrickson Run time: 115mins
Doctor Strange, Marvel’s latest entry in their superhero mega-franchise, is pretty crazy and a whole lot of fun. The film fully embraces its comic book heritage, perhaps more so than any Marvel movie to date. It would be tough to claim this is Marvel’s best effort; the film suffers from many of the usual problems: bland villains, underdeveloped love interests, and an overly familiar origin story structure. What sets this film apart though is that it is filled with some of the most insane and inventive superhero action sequences ever put on screen. Doctor Strange is ridiculous in the best possible way, and many scenes are likely to have fans grinning from ear to ear.
The film focuses on Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the brilliant and improbably named neurosurgeon with more than a hint of Tony Stark-like ego. When a tragic car crash destroys his hands, effectively ending his career, Strange embarks on a quest to heal himself by any means necessary. His journey brings him to Kamar-Taj, a fictional city in the Himalayas. It is here he meets the mysterious Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a powerful sorcerer who teaches Strange the ways of the mystic arts. In doing so she opens his mind to a larger, more complex reality than he could have ever imagined.
Featuring one of Marvel’s lesser known characters Doctor Strange was always going to have to be an origin story – a tricky proposition in today’s superhero heavy pop culture climate. This necessity means having to go through the motions – introducing us to the character and his bizarre powers as he learns how to use them for the first time. The film largely succeeds however, thanks in no small part to the mind bending imagery on display. Any time the story feels rote or stale we are treated to a unique and cool set piece intended to distract and amaze us. This may sound like a bit of a cheat in some ways, but it works.
Trailers for the film give off a definite Inception meets Batman Begins vibe, with their twisted cityscapes, gravity defying antics, and Tibetan monastery retreats. This isn’t far from the truth. While it would be easy to dismiss Doctor Strange as “ripping those movies off”, the source material has existed for far longer than either of those films, and their director Christopher Nolan has previously cited Doctor Strange as an influence on his work. The fact that this movie is now borrowing some ideas back from him never feels like a bad thing. Who didn’t wish Inception had given us a bit more of the awesome spectacle of entire cities folding in on themselves?
Doctor Strange aims to take this imagery to another level, and it certainly succeeds (even if the CGI can’t always quite match the level of ambition on display). On top of this it adds a generous helping of magical spells and battling kung-fu sorcerers into the mix. Seeing characters leap from building to building as the world warps around them is pretty breathtaking. This is one of the rare cases where 3D truly enhances the experience. Anyone who can go see this film in IMAX should definitely take the opportunity to do so.
Oddly enough for a Marvel film, what doesn’t work so well here is the humour. The overall tone of the film is a bit deeper, darker, and more serious than previous instalments. When the jokes do arrive they can’t help but feel a bit out of place. Some work well, others land with a bit of a thud. The script itself isn’t all that great. It is perhaps the film’s single biggest weakness, with a paper thin story, and much of the dialogue focused on selling the more outlandish aspects of the film. In the midst of all this, the jokes often feel like an afterthought, possibly having been added in rewrites to fill the Marvel humour quota.
Dodgy dialogue aside, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor all turn in strong performances. The filmmakers have assembled a pretty stellar cast, and their presence helps elevate proceedings far higher than the material would seem to require. Some scenes however do come across as being a little ridiculous and overwrought. Director Scott Derrickson seems to have requested that his actors dramatically shout as many of their lines as possible, as if that would help sell the seriousness. Instead it occasionally causes some scenes to veer dangerously close to melodrama, and even parody. Cumberbatch’s American accent is also a little grating at times.
Mads Mikkelsen, perhaps best known for his work on Hannibal, is suitably creepy as the villain Kaecilius. He does the best with what he’s given, and has a few great scenes, but Mikkelsen just doesn’t have much to work with. At the end of the day Kaecilius is nothing more than another fairly standard interchangeable Marvel villain. An angry archetype with threadbare motivations, whose only goal in life is to open a world destroying portal in the sky.
On the plus side, anyone who has noticed Marvels problem with bland, indistinctive scores will be glad to know this film goes a long way towards rectifying the problem. Thanks to composer Michael Giacchino, Doctor Strange features one of Marvels few truly memorable melodic scores, complete with actual hummable themes, choirs and interesting instrumentation. It adds an epic sense of adventure and grandeur to proceedings. One can only hope this trend continues.
At the end of the day it’s hard not to love what Marvel are doing. Their films really are comic books come to life, with all the fun and spectacle a fan could possibly wish for. It almost feels petty to knock them for their flaws, but it’s hard to keep giving them a free pass for the assembly line nature of the finished product.
Doctor Strange is a film that is both fresh and formulaic at the same time. Filled with mind blowing special effects and inventive action, it succeeds in bringing an exciting new dimension to the Marvel Universe. With the origin story out of the way, it’ll be very interesting to see where the characters and concepts go from here.
(3.5 / 5)