The Marvel Comic Universe has widely considered to be made of three distinct sections, Earth, Comic and Mythical. Earth and Cosmic have already been touched upon in the MCU but Mythical hasn’t until now and with good reason, because of the rule-bending nature a central universe needed to be established first before Marvel brought in its Sorcerer Supreme. As it stands, what Doctor Strange lacks in narrative it makes up for in being arguably the most imaginative MCU movie to date.
The story finds Dr Stephen Strange working as a neurosurgeon in New York, arguably the best in his field across the entire world. However his fame and riches have made him arrogant and egotistical, pushing away everyone who tries to come close, including ex-girlfriend and co-worker Christine Palmer. When Strange is involved in a severe car accident his hands are the worst affected, with bones, muscles and nerve endings all being torn to pieces, despite having the money to pay for experimental treatments, the sad reality is no-one is more qualified to fix his hands than himself and his impatience drives him near to ruin.
However his fortunes change when he’s put into contact with a seemingly impossible patient who was paralysed from the chest down but now walks, runs and jumps like nothing has changed. The patient tells Strange that he received Spiritual training at a place near Nepal called Kamar-Taj, where a being known as The Ancient One can teach him. Strange spends his last dollar to find The Ancient One and while there is some slight hesitation from both parties, she agrees to take him on thanks to fellows sorcerer Baron Mordo recognising the strength within Stephen. While Strange does struggle to open his mind beyond the realms of his own control he soon starts experimenting with more difficult and dangerous techniques and shows a remarkable talent for them, eventually allowing The Ancient One to tell him about her former student Kaecilius, a man with similar traits to Strange who has made a pact with a Demon God that threatens to extinguish the world in complete darkness.
Truth be told the story is the weakest aspect of the whole film, aside from feeling a little too much like Iron Man – arrogant genius gets brought back down to earth, has to overcome own disability to fight another genius of their field – the film also has to contend with the amount of new rules and material that comes from bringing the mystical arts into the MCU. It’s not a terrible story there’s enough different to keep Marvel fans intrigued but 14 films in, and following on from the very personal Civil War storyline, you’d think there’d be something a little more substantial that another ‘Save the world’ storyline.
Characters were good, because so much time is spent in the Mystic area a few of the earth-bound characters felt underwritten, Michael Stuhlberg felt like he was just there to be shown up by Stephen but there was s a little growth in their relationship by the end. Rachel McAdams Christine was the biggest offender which is a shame because there was actually something good between her and Cumberbatch, I liked how the film set up that Christine and Stephen had both already tried to be in a relationship but while it hadn’t panned out neither of them were bitter about it, even making jokes at each other’s expense for it. Plus the fact that they were both doctors that were just on opposite ends of the spectrum – Strange was a private neurosurgeon only picking treatable clients so as not to ruin his reputation whereas Christine worked the E.R. dealing with life and death on an hourly basis – showed a mutual understanding of each other’s fields that may have even been respect had Stephen not been an ass about it. There was a decent character in Christine and McAdams is solid in the role, turning out to be one of the stronger Marvel love interests in a while, but she’s still comes up short because so much time is devoted to Strange’s origins.
On the Mystic side we has Benedict Wong playing Wong – no seriously that’s real – a drill-sergeant of a librarian who clashes with Strange’s arrogance but proves to be a formidable ally in the wars to come. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Baron Mordo, a fellow Sorcerer and tutor to Strange who comes from a dark background and a rigid code of honour, a code that is tested throughout the film leading to a possible darker return in future sequels, there is a lot of set up for Ejiofor to take on the villain role Mordo has in the comics and if this is indeed his origins as well they’ve done a good job at explaining his motivations.
Tilda Swinton takes on The Ancient One, originally an elderly Asian man in the comics, the role was changed to avoid any unnecessary stereotypes. She proves to be a fine addition to the MCU, taking on the role with authority and intelligence, always ready to push Strange beyond what’s necessary to unlock his full potential. However there is more to her than meets the eye and Swinton showcases a more flawed character than what meets the eye but one whose shortcomings make sense within her own character arc.
I’ve seen a few reviews say that Kaecilius was another weak Marvel villain but I disagree, granted that could be because I’m still riding high off Hannibal and I’m just happy to see Mads Mikkelsen getting some solid work but I thought Kaecilius was one of the better villains of the franchise. For one thing he’s an intimadating foe, between his general demeanour and his mastery of spells he proves himself more than capable at matching Strange on a skillful level, even bettering him in a few cases. For another his intentions are a little more complicated than what you initially expect, you can tell he’s been corrupted by the Demon God – a long standing Marvel character making a solid debut here – but he truly believes what he’s doing is right, his intentions are for eternal life for all which stems from the loss of his family, death has hurt him and he wants to take Death head on. There is a similarity between Kaecilius and Strange in that they both fight Death but both handle it in different ways.
As for the good doctor himself, Benedict Cumberbatch makes a strong entry into the MCU and if the rumours are true that he’ll be taking over the Iron Man role of likeable asshole then he fits the bill because Stephen is kind of an asshole, a great surgeon but one whose arrogance has made him selfish and fame-hungry, thinking only of his own reputation rather than actually helping anyone. Even after the accident that costs him the use of his hands Strange still only thinks of himself and how his life has been affected, his anger is justified but is simply an exacerbation of his own true nature brought on by his inability to heal fast enough. It’s one of Cumberbatch’s strongest notes that he doesn’t immediately humanise Strange, he actually does keep him as a bit of a dick for a good portion of the film, never fully learning what he has to but pushing himself beyond what he considers trivial to focus on the advanced elements despite not fully knowing what they are capable of. It’s that dickishness that keeps Strange so interesting, he’s constantly questioning what he’s told, going off on his own and going overboard and while he has the talents his arrogance still has him questioning why he’s being held back. And it’s that character flaw that stands out, showing us that Strange is still an outsider to these teachings but perhaps an outsiders perspective is just what’s needed. Even with that flaw, Strange’s arc and the way Cumberbatch humanises him as the film goes on, slowly coming to terms with both his abilities and his lack thereof provides the film with an origin story fitting of Marvel’s newest and strangest hero.
The film is directed by Scott Derrickson, primarily known for horror movies, Derrickson provides the film with an imaginative edge that allows him to introduce a wide variety of new rules into the MCU and break them all in under two hours. While all of it is CGI it’s done in a very impressive manner by putting Strange into the middle of some trippy visuals straight out of a Salvador Dali work, the first mind trip is a two minute explosion of colours, dimensional exploration, disturbing visuals and breath-taking seconds where the entire multiverse stands still only to rush straight back into existence. And that’s just the first one, from there the film brings in everything from portals and shields to entire city landscapes being twisted and turned beyond belief, yes the Inception similarities are there but Derrickson does a lot more with the concept that what Nolan manages.
The third act in particularly proves to be one of the most inventive finales Marvel’s ever produced, it’s near impossible to go into without spoiling elements of the film best left undiscovered but what Strange does and how he fights Kaecilius brings in a manipulative effect that’s almost certainly going to become a big thing in future MCU movies.
One minor complaint I had early on in the film was the hand-to-hand combat got a little difficult to follow at times but by about the half-way point, once Strange gets his cloak, things get better because Derrickson is able to give the fight scenes more fluidity. A set-piece fight against Scott Adkins is a highlight both for how much creativity Derrickson gives to the scene and for the surprisingly brutal manner in which it ends and a later four dimension chase sequence brings nearly all the new elements he introduces into the film and throws it all on screen at once.
Doctor Strange might suffer slightly from an all-too-familiar story structure and some weaker character writing but as an introduction to Stephen Strange and the mystical elements of the Marvel universe it’s done a fine job. Cumberbatch eases into the role but still leaves enough growth for future entries, the supporting cast does fine with standouts from Mikkelsen, Swinton and Ejiofor and Derrickson’s creativity turns what could’ve been Marvel’s riskiest venture into one of the most visual impressive movies of the year.
3 and a half hairpieces out of 5
And for those wondering, there are two post-credits scenes, the first has a big set-up for a future MCU movie while the second hints at where a character will be heading.