This article was originally published to SSP Thinks Film by Sam Sewell-Peterson.
Doctor Strange (2016)
Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenwriters: Jon Spaihts, C Robert Cargill, Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins
One of the major problems with launching new films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that a lot of the characters from Marvel comics have essentially the same origin story. “Arrogant jerk becomes selfless hero” is almost as omnipresent as DC’s “grief gives hero guilt-driven purpose”. Stephen Strange’s story may not be all that far removed from that of Tony Stark or Thor, and the first act of Doctor Strange might feel very familiar to anyone who has seen Batman Begins recently, but the rest of the film offers so much that is new on a visual and conceptual level that you don’t really mind.
Brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is brought crashing down to earth when a car accident leaves him barely able to use his hands. In a desperate search for a miracle cure, he travels to Tibet and comes under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who leads an order of sorcerers who protect time, space and reality itself from inter-dimensional threats. Will Doctor Strange put aside self-doubt and reach his full potential in time to stop renegade sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) from performing a dangerous ritual that will open the door to the “Dark Dimension”?
From the film’s first sequence – an eye-popping magical heist and chase through London – director Scott Derrickson is making a bold aesthetic statement. Christopher Nolan, who may have been influenced himself by Steve Ditko’s imagery from the original “Doctor Strange” comics, ain’t got nothing on this. From entire cities flipping and folding, shards of reality punching through our field of vision, an elaborate fistfight inside a reversing timeline and some good old-fashioned psychedelic mind-melting, this is easily one of the most unique visual offerings of the MCU so far. An argument could certainly be made that the benchmarks of distinctive modern visual effects used to portray reality misbehaving are Dark City and The Matrix, Inception and now Doctor Strange.
As much of a bold choice as Joaquin Phoenix (who turned down the role) would have been, Benedict Cumberbatch was born for this and makes surgeon Strange a strutting Sherlock. He is an endearingly inept magic user at first, but never above using his previous arrogance and competitive streak to try and get ahead in his new and unlikely profession. Chiwetel Ejiofor hints at a lot more going on below the surface of his calm and collected but pained Mordo, whilst Mikkelsen brings deadpan humour to Kaecilius’ interactions with Strange, and Rachel McAdams’ Dr Palmer refreshingly reacts to strange goings on like a real person would and doesn’t instantly forget her ex was a terrible person when he rocks up in a snazzy new uniform. Swinton is convincing as an ageless bastion of knowledge and generally justifies her casting over the highly stereotyped image of the Ancient One in the comics, but they could always have made her odder to really tap into Swinton’s skillset.
It helps that Marvel is committed to keeping things light where needed, notably a pleasing recurring gag that has Strange comparing formidable arcane librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) to the endless list famous mononymous music stars. Even the most intense action set pieces get punctuated by a few slapstick gags, especially when Strange is still a novice and tends to win more by fluke (or very protective sentient cloak) than through skill.
The sheer visual onslaught is at times a bit much. It seems churlish to compare this (one of the best blockbusters of 2016) with Duncan Jones’ Warcraft released earlier the same year (which…wasn’t), but both do encounter the same problem in that human beings can only process so much information via our eyeballs at once. The opening set piece works, as does the concluding sequence for its sheer ballsinesss, but there is so much going on in the scene that ends the film’s second act where Strange and Mordo chase Kaecilius through the highly malleable “Mirror Dimension” that it’s a real challenge to keep up.
Doctor Strange may not be the most thematically demanding movie out there, but it has got imagination in abundance and personality to spare, and it’s very easy to enjoy it on a wild, pure escapist level. The way the Marvel Universe(s) are left at the end of all this certainly offers up some interesting narrative and character possibilities for the MCU’s future, and those possibilities have certainly started to bear fruit in over the past couple of years. Whereas once we might have feared how Strange joining the wider action in the MCU would remove any tension given that his powers are essentially limitless, post-Thanos those fears have proven unfounded. Besides, there are other formidable (and colour coded) magic users sharing this universe who have had a pretty bad time in their appearances of late and who could conceivably abracadabra even Strange into oblivion without much effort should they wish to…