Scott Derrickson | 115 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13
The latest from Marvel (or Marvel Studios, as they’re now branded, presumably in a bid to differentiate themselves from the properties owned by other studios that have been only too keen to use the Marvel logo and blur the line for the casual moviegoer) opens the door on a new facet of their shared cinematic universe, though does so in a movie whose plot follows the familiar “superhero origin story” rulebook. On the bright side, Doctor Strange has several other qualities to recommend it.
It’s the story of Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant but cocky New York neurosurgeon, whose hands are ruined in an accident, taking his career — the sole focus of his life — with them. In search of groundbreaking healing, he travels to Nepal, where he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) — not a doctor, but a mystic, who introduces him to the world of magic. Which in this case is real and not just, like, some Derren Brown stuff, because that wouldn’t make a very good superhero movie. Then there’s some stuff about evil sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who wants to destroy the world, blah blah blah.
So yes, the story is familiar — but you can say that about most superhero movies, especially origin films. It’s only a problem if you think movies are entirely about their plot. What Strange offers to accompany this through-the-motions narrative is its visuals, and oh, what visuals they are. You’ve likely seen some of it in the trailers — the folding cities, which look like Inception run through a kaleidoscope. Certainly, their complicated detail and intricacy leaves Nolan’s movie in the shade. The old idea of “an effects movie” — where the incredible effects are half the point — seemed dead in an era where every movie has CGI and every blockbuster has its share of once-impossible visuals. Strange demonstrates the form can be alive and well. The way the effects are created — with green screen and pixels — is the same as any other movie, but the designs and the visual imagination are exciting.
The action scenes that are choreographed around and through these effects are suitably imaginative also, making use of the concepts and ideas of the magic, rather than just having people punch each other in front of swirly backgrounds. To say too much would be to spoil the movie, but the Inception-y stuff is not the film’s climax — it has several other tricks up its sleeve. There’s one bit where time flows backwards, which I specifically mention because at that point the music does a bit too, which is primarily notable because the rest of the score is your typical bland, generic, forgettable Marvel music. On the other hand, I’ve read others praise the music for being more memorable than Marvel’s usual temp-tracked output, so maybe I’m wrong.
When the film isn’t tickling your adrenal glands, it at least has the courtesy to sweeten the pill of its Superhero 101 storyline. For one thing it’s very funny, though in a way that doesn’t steal from the drama. This lightness of touch has become Marvel’s forte, and Strange handles it as well as any, without going all-out like Guardians of the Galaxy or half of anything starring Tony Stark.
Then there’s the cast. Obviously keen to avoid being typecast after playing an arrogant British genius in both Sherlock and The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch here plays an arrogant American genius. Strange doesn’t have the charm of Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, nor of some of his Marvel stablemates, like Tony Stark or Peter Quill, but his character arc takes that arrogance and transforms it into a kind of caring aloofness that, with flashes of dry wit, makes him an appealing character — even if it may take further films for that appeal to be fully realised.
Mads Mikkelsen is somewhat wasted as Marvel’s typically lightweight villain, though his inherent skill as an actor allows him to flesh out the few speeches he is given. You could expand that assessment out to most of the cast: they’re all above this — four of them are Oscar nominees or winners (clearly Mikkelsen has been overlooked by the Academy) — but the fact that quality flows through their veins helps elevate some of the material. You could argue their talent is wasted with this stuff, but what do you expect? It’s an action-adventure blockbuster from a company known for their consistently light tone — that’s never going to dig into proper emotive character drama. Suffice to say that such top-tier actors effortlessly add resonance to their roles, however little they had to work with on the page.
More controversial was Tilda Swinton’s casting. You could see it as whitewashing, or you could see it as dodging a racial stereotype — there’s a visual gag to that effect, in fact. Besides, one of the film’s best characters is of Asian ethnicity, so it kinda balances out. That’s Benedict Wong as the sorcerers’ librarian, who’s likely to emerge as the film’s most popular character. It helps that viewers aren’t likely to expect much of him. Conversely, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Rachel McAdams are seriously underserved, perhaps hoping for more meat in the no-doubt-intended sequel(s).
Actually, that’s an understatement, isn’t it? This is a Marvel movie, and one that’s garnered positive reviews thus far to boot — it’s going to be a box office success, and sequels will inevitably follow. Nonetheless, some reviews have been bizarrely keen to frame Strange as “Marvel’s greatest risk yet” and “a radical departure for the studio”. That’s all empty hyperbole at this point and I don’t know why they do it. Guardians of the Galaxy already proved that no change of genre is a risk for the studio — and Guardians was a much bigger change of form for Marvel than Strange is. Plus, the way Strange handles magic is no more out-there than the way it handled gods ‘n’ that in two Thor films. Indeed, if anything Strange should look like a moderately safe bet: it’s following in Thor’s footsteps with the whole magic/other worlds/dimensions thing, but married to a fairly standard superhero origin arc. It’s no riskier a proposition for Marvel than any other new property. Nonetheless, it does open up some tantalising possibilities, especially when it comes to teaming Strange with the Avengers… though they’ll have to find a way to remove some of his abilities, otherwise he’ll be far too powerful.
To further those connections, there are two end credits scenes. I shan’t spoil their contents, of course, but in my opinion they’re the wrong way round. One is basically a teaser for another Marvel film, the other relates to the plot of the movie we’ve just seen. The former is first (and about 10% of my screening walked out before it came on) and the latter is, obviously, second (by which time about 90% had left). Those percentages ‘matter’ because, a) how do people not know Marvel’s rep for these scenes by this point?, and b) I think the scene related to the film you’ve just watched is the one that should be more attached to it, with the ‘teaser trailer’ being a fun bonus for those dedicated to stick around to the bitter end. But maybe that’s just me.
Much earlier in the movie, shortly after encountering the Ancient One, Strange is offered tea. He drinks it, then something amazing happens, and he asks what was in the tea. The Ancient One answers, “Just tea. With honey.” That line struck me because it rather sums up Doctor Strange as a movie. In its well-rehearsed superhero-origin-story-ness, it’s just tea; but the quality cast, the genuine laughs, the imaginatively choreographed action, and, most of all, the mind-bending visuals add a very pleasurable sweetness.
Doctor Strange is in UK cinemas now, and is released in the US next month.