It’s Marvel bandwagon time, ladies and gents! Can you believe it’s been a whole six months since Captain America: Civil War - the supposed first entry in Marvel Studios’ Phase Three of its Cinematic Universe - was in theaters? What on earth have we been doing since? Certainly not seeing good movies, that’s for sure. Or at least that’s what Marvel would have you believe, given its penchant for releasing its blockbusters with such terrifying frequency that it’s easier to just accept that modern Hollywood is an endless sequence of superhero movies - specifically theirs. But, even if it is offered to us under the impending shadow of yet more Thor and Avengers sequels, at least Doctor Strange gives us some new IP to enjoy. And it’s actually quite fun - awfully slow to start perhaps, and derivative of the company’s previous works for sure (and I feel like I’ve started to use that term to describe Marvel movies WAY too much). But it is nonetheless very well acted, splendidly produced, welcomingly original with its hero in question, and refreshingly clever in the inevitable good vs bad showdown that concludes it. Good enough in fact, that it already has a sequel planned - and in this case, I wouldn’t mind seeing how that one pans out as well.
Benedict Cumberbatch is the latest A-list actor to come into the comic book movie fold, donning the persona of the film’s titular character, Dr. Stephen Strange, in a movie that initially refuses to deviate from the standard formula that so many superhero origin stories hinge upon. You know the idea - regular individual stumbles upon some incredible powers, thinks they’re cool, then wants to shirk responsibility when told he has to save the world with them. Where Dr. Strange does go off the beaten path however is with the very nature of the powers in questions. Instead of mutations or pseudo sci-fi to fall back on, Dr. Strange is a sorceror. He deals largely with the metaphysical, or to put it more bluntly, magic. By default, that makes him a risky character to bring into the Cinematic Universe. Across all of the other entries that have made up Marvel’s film empire so far, there has always been a consistent, mature sense of self-awareness that has been adhered to in order to at least make each film’s fantastical elements seem believable in the modern-day world. To have the Avengers’ own sagas run parallel to some middle-aged geezer dabbling around with spells and illusions is to expose the entire narrative to a real wild card - and a potential hole in the plausibility of it all. Thankfully, the movie is able to avoid this problem through the depth and strength of Cumberbatch’s performance in the lead role (which given the guy’s recent form, isn’t too surprising). And even if the acting alone can’t hold the skeptics back, Marvel then has another equally reliable trick up its sleeve - to pack the movie with such an array of tremendous special effects that the entire spectacle is too visually incredible for any other distractions to come to mind.
There’s also another nuance thrown in here in the sense that Dr. Stephen Strange isn’t really all that ‘regular’ to begin with. He starts the movie as a pretty world-class neurosurgeon - the Tony Stark of his industry, if you will - and he’s also very aware of that fact. His constant vanity and self-aggrandizement are sources of irritation for his colleague and on-off romantic interest Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams, overly average here), but they do come backed up with genuine ability. So much so, that he can afford to pick and choose the more difficult, interesting operations he’s requested for, instead of performing the moralistic duty of helping all of the patients that are sent to him. This attitude towards both his job and life is soon thrown back upon him though, as he suffers a car accident - a visually brutal set piece of one, in fact - which ultimately results in the irreparable crippling of his hands. Robbed of the very instruments that brought him his fame, Strange is forced to find treatment for an impossible recovery - or give up on his livelihood for good.
Naturally, with every genius in the world of modern medicine declining his impossible requests for treatment, he does what any white individual with a little too much money than sense would do - he goes off backpacking to Asia in search of a mystical cure. He sets out to Kathmandu on the advice of another individual who has experienced the very same restoration to health from crippling injury that he seeks - and the film makes no subtle hint about this journey symbolizing his first cliched steps into superhero self-discovery. Within the ancient city’s bustling backstreets, he finds the Kamar-Taj - a temple owned by a mysterious person known only as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and the person of whom these tales of mythical healing are spoken of. Her work though, isn’t that of the average new-age spiritualist. Instead of yoga, inner breathing and joss sticks, The Ancient One promotes a different kind of soul education - the ability to wield sorcery. It turns out that Strange’s informant wasn’t ‘healed’ as such - he was simply trained in the ability to use magic to allow himself to walk again. It all seems like complete nonsense to Strange, who is then promptly demonstrated to, via a pretty spectacular hallucination sequence brought upon him, that it is anything but. Stunned by this jolting revelatory experience, he implores The Ancient One to teach him her powers, seeing it as the only path he has to restoring his hands back to their former prowess. With some initial reluctance, she agrees - but her tutelage will come at a price for her new, prodigious apprentice. For little does he realize that his new-found master hides plenty of darker secrets behind her knowledge of the unknown. And littler still does he know of an equally powerful, but distinctly more evil group of sorcerers moving against The Ancient One and her disciples in an attempt to summon a monstrous entity, and offer the world to him in worship.
In amongst the Doctor’s struggles to defeat both his disability and his ego in the face of perils the world has never faced, one thing needs to be hammered home an additional time: this might just be the finest-looking film Marvel Studios have yet produced. It may not have the level of epic detail or depth that the Avengers movies enjoy, but it more than makes up for it by ‘wow’ factor alone. The magicians of Dr. Strange have plenty to show off - from complex hand gestures that produce vivid, glowing glyphs to contorting whole buildings and streets in a way that make the dream sequences of Inception look average in comparison. Dr. Strange is an absolute feast for the FX junkie. Its visuals are especially key when delivering the film’s early flashpoints, which are critical in keeping a pulse going during what is an incredibly sedate opening. It’s almost jarring just how quiet Dr. Strange kicks off. The early action scene between The Ancient One and the main antagonist, Kaecilius (dryly portrayed by that expert of villains, Mads Mikkelsen), and the car crash offer promise, but end up being light bumps on a very slow road. It is all so ludicrously introspective in fact, that by the time Strange does roll in to Kathmandu, this whole movie has taken the atmosphere of some indie film on self-exploration. It doesn’t help that the plot’s initial going progresses along some awfully generic, overused milestones - many of which have previously been mentioned - with the added bonus of an annoyingly bland love angle thrown in for Cumberbatch and McAdams’ characters. Dr. Strange can count itself very fortunate that its sparse moments of early action catch the eye as much as they do. Otherwise, this tale would hint that it is far less than that of a superhero’s, and more that of an unsympathetic, self-pitying douche of a brain surgeon.
It is the introduction of The Ancient One - the film’s most complex character as well as its most controversial - that forces everything up a necessary gear. As good as Cumberbatch is in the movie, Tilda Swinton is better - she brings an essential grace to this omnipotent benefactor of magic that she plays, and her delivery is absolutely on point. It’s a performance that will not be without its critics though - there are a number who have spoken out against her place in the movie ahead of an Asian actor, given the original comic book character’s roots. Marvel’s attempts to sidestep these accusations of ‘whitewashing’ will also do little to temper the valid argument being made about Hollywood and race - no matter how many times the movie insists that she’s ‘Celtic’ rather than ‘white’. But beneath this talking point lies a deeper dilemma. With Swinton being so good in this movie, it is very likely that she simply got the role not because of some film exec demanding a marketable white actress, but because she was simply leagues ahead of anyone who turned up to audition. This offers a valid point that is often missed in these discussions: how much time limitation is placed on casting, as well as the evaluation of the talent who turned up for the role? I’d wager it’s a more influential factor than some would care to entertain.
In any case, once Strange is joined by his tutor, as well as her disciples Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor in passionate form) and Wong (an stoic yet amusing Benedict Wong), the pieces begin to move much faster and the fight scenes come thick and fast. There are some very notable moments throughout these, mostly because it’s here that the film can explore all of the different possibilities that can arise when Marvel-styled magicians scrap with one another - and begin to realize just how fun many of those possibilities are. Hands are flung to and fro as these wizards throw everything at one another - glyphs, teleportation gateways, even themselves - and it’s a welcome change for the Marvel franchise that the wit of this movie is carried just as much by the action sequences as it is by its main character’s numerous quips. But Dr. Strange definitely saves its best for last. Its climactic battle sequence, which annoyingly feels rushed especially in comparison to the film’s slumbering beginnings, is nonetheless a cleverly original battle where the fabric of time itself is used as a weapon. It makes a refreshing change from the usual super-brawls that ensue at the end of these movies, and Dr. Strange should definitely be commended for taking such a risk.
It’s odd that Dr. Strange makes these bold moves at the almost inopportune of times, especially when it spends so much of its duration trying to fit the mold of all the other Marvel hits that came before it. But this is definitely a case of better late than never. After all, Dr. Strange is a character that stands out on the company’s vast creative landscape more than most. So too then, should the movie attempt to separate itself as well. When it remembers to do this, fleeting though these moments are, Dr. Strange flourishes. Fortunately, even with the narratively derivative nature of the movie as a whole, there are more than enough of these moments for it to stand as a worthy continuation of the Cinematic Universe’s legacy. Not to mention that they all combine to make magic look pretty bad-ass - and not even the Potter movies could manage that…