Doctor Strange (2016) – Movie Review
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Written by: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton & Mads Mikkelsen
Music: Michael Giacchino
Release Date: October 25th 2016
The hardest part about writing these reviews is coming up with the introductory paragraphs giving the film cultural context or setting the stage for my thoughts. And when it comes to Marvel movies these introductions are getting harder and harder because…well, you already know what the context is and this is the FOURTEENTH film in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. However, it can be said that despite the proven critical and commercial acclaim of the franchise, Kevin Feige and everyone else at Disney/Marvel aren’t opposed to taking their Universe in bold and new directions with ‘Doctor Strange‘ opening up the MCU to the mystical.
Created in the early 1960s by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, Doctor Strange basically had the same origin story as Iron Man but instead of relying on machinery to fix his faulty heart, he turned to sorcery to make the most of his broken hands. Since then, Doctor Strange has been a fixture of the Marvel Comics universe often being very popular in guest appearances but not often being popular enough to sustain his own series for very long. And now we have an origin movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Sorcerer Supreme. Can this character transcend the page and create a compelling standalone story or should we wait for the inevitable Avengers team-up before getting invested in this character?
Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a world-famous neurosurgeon with a massive ego but the talent to get the job done. However, Stephen loses the use of his hands after a career-ending car accident and pushes those who care about him most, namely fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (McAdams) away from him. After exhausting all alternatives, Stephen travels to far-east to seek out The Ancient One (Swinton) and her student Mordo (Ejiofor) to teach him sorcery to fix his broken hands. But as he learns the secrets of magic, a group of evil sorcerers led by Kaecilius (Mikkelsen) plan to resurrect the demon Dormammu in order to attain eternal life. Stephen Strange must find a way to stop Kaecilius by mastering his newly-learned powers and becoming the Sorcerer Supreme.
‘Doctor Strange‘, despite taking place towards the beginning of Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe which has already been well established, feels a lot like a Phase 1 origin movie drawing from an ever-growing template. Much like ‘Iron Man‘ and ‘Thor‘, ‘Doctor Strange‘ is relatively light on plot and much more concerned about character/world-building. This makes sense because, despite the audience already being on board for superheroes, monsters, scientific experiments, artificial intelligence, aliens and size-changers, sorcery is on another level so it makes sense to ease audiences into it with a plot that isn’t wholly complicated. And despite Tony Stark and Stephen Strange having nearly identical origin stories (as well as very similar facial hair), the two characters themselves feel different enough to prevent them from being clones in the same universe.
With Tony Stark, we had a character with severe abandonment issues using his fame to fill the massive emotional void in his (literally damaged) heart. With Stephen Strange, this is a man who lives or dies based on his own personal reputation. Much like Cumberbatch’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, he has a compulsive NEED to work but he tries to balance that by tackling surgeries that he knows will get him recognition and he knows that he can accomplish. This is a man with a pathological fear of failure. One reason he struggles with the mystic arts initially is his inability to fully dedicate himself to superstition just in case he is wrong and is unable to master it. This actually makes for one of the most interesting character arcs in a Marvel movie in terms of how the narrative takes a character flaw and literally forces the protagonist to face it head-on; case in point, Stephen’s need to face the idea of failure over and over and over again in the film’s final confrontation.
The world-building aspect of ‘Doctor Strange‘ is also very effective, but it also feels a little bit restrained in how much mystical stuff we’re allowed to see. After a clever, subversive introduction to Tilda Swinton’s The Ancient One, we get a mind-blowing sequence full of illusions, new dimensions and trippy, out-of-this-world visuals but after that we mainly just see the mystic arts used for combat and transportation. Oh, that stuff is still awesome and inventive with the film getting great mileage out of the concept (more on that later), but it feels like a lot of this stuff is being saved for future sequels. Which is fine since we know this character will be in more movies and we’ll see his skill-set develop, but it puts a limit on how all-out an origin movie of this ilk can be. Case in point, we weren’t going to get the Hulkbuster or the Bleeding Edge Armour in the first ‘Iron Man‘.
When it comes to the cast, ‘Doctor Strange‘ assembles one of the most talented ensembles of the whole series with Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong and Mads Mikkelsen but in terms of giving them much to do, we have mixed results. The former three are brilliant with Cumberbatch’s American accent being surprisingly convincing and he gives a lot of weight to this performance and nailing the dramatic moments and esoteric nature of the character whilst still making him sympathetic along with giving him moments of deadpan humour. Tilda Swinton is a brilliant, enigmatic presense as the Ancient One and I hope we see more of her in future films because she subverts the “wise sensei” trope and makes it feel more grounded but without losing humanity or authority. Chiwetel Ejiofor gets a compelling arc as Mordo, someone who has spent his whole life trying to follow the teachings of the Ancient one and trying to be as morally righteous as possible, only to have his entire world-view shattered. And how he deals with the fallout of the events of this film are surely going to be explored in further films. It’s great to see Ejiofor in genre-fare again and if you’ve seen ‘Serenity‘ then you’ll know that Mordo is in very safe hands.
However, when it comes to Rachel McAdams and Mads Mikkelsen, it feels like ‘Doctor Strange‘ is a waste of their considerable talents. McAdams gets very little to do as Stephen Strange’s love interest aside from being the witness to one inventive action sequence and Mikkelsen will join the increasing list of MCU villains played by insanely talented actors but giving them underwhelming roles. Kaecilius isn’t a terrible villain, but he mainly exists to BE a threat for the heroes to face.
He gets a few decent moments of intimidation and humour, but it feels like he’s a plot-device first as opposed to an interesting foe for Doctor Strange to go up against. He’s supposed to be an arrogant former pupil of the Ancient One which is why she’s initially reluctant to train Stephen, but because we don’t see any of that prior relationship it’s a parallel that doesn’t amount to anything. It’s just a wasted opportunity in regards to both the love interest and the villain, even though both do give predictably good performances.
But ‘Doctor Strange‘s Number 1 priority is opening up the MCU to both the magical and also introduce Doctor Strange as a character and in this regard it does a great job with some solid characterisation and re-tooling of the comic book series to make the Masters of the Mystic Arts a multi-racial coalition of warriors tasked with defending the world from mystical threats. But it also has a real human side to it as Doctor Strange as a character undergoes real change over the course of the film with real pathos and sincerity which is bolstered by one of the best scenes of the movie which takes place on a hospital balcony which I will not spoil. But ‘Doctor Strange‘, much like other Marvel films, is also really funny and entertaining with great jokes, visual gags and knowing full well how ridiculous the mystic arts being portrayed are but still meeting the concept at face-value. Special mention also has to go to Strange’s cloak of levitation which almost becomes a character in and of itself, similar to the Magic Carpet from Disney’s ‘Aladdin‘.
It also helps that the action in ‘Doctor Strange‘ is absolutely terrific despite director Scott Derrickson having never directed an action film in his life. While there’s nothing here to top the airport sequence in ‘Captain America: Civil War‘ (because what could?), we get set-pieces which are mind-bendingly inventive including, but not limited to a sequence where the fighting takes place in real-time but the exploding environment around the combatants is going backwards in time and repairing itself. Chases on top of skyscapers take on a whole new meaning when the sorcerers can bend, twist and contort the buildings at will and the ability to conjure up platforms, shields, swords and whips out of energy give the sorcerers plenty to work with. If there’s one weakness with the action, it’s that the use of stunt-doubles is rather obvious when you get numerous hooded-monk figures fighting each other meaning you never actually see Tilda Swinton fight, you just see a hooded figure which feels disappointing.
When it comes to the rest of the production values, we get some of the Scott Derrickson staples such as great lighting and atmosphere but those wanting an horror film in the vein of ‘Sinister‘ or ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose‘ will leave disappointed as this is a mind-bending action film. But as is the case with all Marvel films, the globe-hopping scale is apparent, it’s edited well, the music is solid, the eastern-inspired production/set design is well realised, the make-up is really well applied, the C.G.I. is top-notch and the film’s depiction of astral projection and how the weapons the sorcerer’s conjure up almost seem to be made out of sparks is visually unique and interesting. As is expected of Marvel, it’s a complete and polished package.
‘Doctor Strange‘ may feel slightly restrained in its portrayal of the mystical as well as giving us another underwhelming love-interest and villain for our lead character, but it’s still a really well-told and executed origin story for Doctor Stephen Strange. We have a great trio of performances from Cumberbatch, Swinton and Ejiofor who all undergo interesting and compelling character-arcs whilst also introducing us to a whole new aspect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that I for one cannot wait to see explored. It’s a great, solidly constructed blockbuster with unique visuals and as a character, Doctor Strange is fully capable of being just as interesting and engaging as his fellow Avengers.
I give ‘Doctor Strange‘ 4 stars out of 5.
Oh yeah, and stay through the credits.
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Posted: 18th Jan 17