Dir: Scott Derrickson. US. 2016. 115mins
There’s still some magic left in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but as Doctor Strange demonstrates, familiarity can diminish the company’s onscreen sorcery. Entertaining in its grand flourishes but spottier when it comes to character work and thematic coherence, the film boasts a slightly darker and more mystical air than its peers, accentuated by some of the most arresting set pieces in the MCU canon. But much like Benedict Cumberbatch’s dutiful performance as the unlikely titular hero, Doctor Strange is a just-good-enough proposition, successfully extending a commercial brand rather than promising that even-greater creative peaks are on the horizon.
Less jokey than Ant-Man, but trippier and more grownup than Thor, Doctor Strange has a resonance that’s not always apparent in Marvel movies.
Hitting the UK on October 25 and the US on November 4, this Marvel Studios release is banking on its formidable track record to lure significant audiences. Cumberbatch’s involvement will help, along with that of co-stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams and Tilda Swinton, which might mitigate the fact that this movie’s Master of the Mystic Arts isn’t as popular as other Marvel characters like Iron Man or Captain America.
Cumberbatch plays Stephen Strange, a brilliant, arrogant New York surgeon involved in a serious car accident that severely damages his all-important hands. Desperate for a remedy so that he can regain his livelihood, Strange travels to Nepal, where he comes in contact with The Ancient One (Swinton), an ageless entity who offers to revive his hands while simultaneously awakening his consciousness to the unseen powers of the multiverse.
Directed by Scott Derrickson (Sinister, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose), Doctor Strange boasts a loopier tone than the typical MCU film - it’s less jokey than Ant-Man, but trippier and more grownup than Thor. In part, that’s because the film deals not only with mind-bending concepts such as parallel dimensions, time travel and mysticism, but also lightly philosophical questions about people’s purpose on Earth and how best to serve humanity. These themes sometimes play out disjointedly - Derrickson and co-writers Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill awkwardly shoehorning them in between action sequences - but for the most part, they give Doctor Strange a resonance that’s not always apparent in Marvel movies.
Still, Doctor Strange struggles to bring new wrinkles to what is, ultimately, yet another origin story about a flawed, exceptional man who gains powers while becoming a better person. The Ancient One, aided by her lieutenant Mordo (an underused Ejiofor), trains a sceptical Strange, and these sequences of wise teacher and reluctant pupil are scarcely different than scenes we’ve seen in The Empire Strikes Back, The Matrix and Batman Begins. The Doctor Strange character may have first appeared in comic books in 1963, but the movie feels derivative, even in its handling of Strange’s narrative arc as he belatedly realises that his on-again/off-again girlfriend, fellow doctor Christine Palmer (a sweet, smart McAdams), deserves a more loving, present man than he has been.
With his haughty air and crisp diction, Cumberbatch has often played intelligent, condescending men, and in Doctor Strange he undercuts that persona with a dry sense of humour at his character’s jarring transition from the conventional world to this fantastical realm of sorcerers and ferocious bad guys, particularly The Ancient One’s former pupil, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). Sporting a regal air, Cumberbatch cuts a striking figure in a flowing red cape and trim goatee. But Strange isn’t different enough from Tony Stark (who’s also brilliant and arrogant) to feel like a novel, witty creation — and the same goes for Swinton and Mikkelsen, who bring some gravitas to clichéd comic-book types.
But with that said, Doctor Strange is enlivened by inspired set pieces that capture the movie’s mystical milieu more potently than the characters do. Because the film operates in parallel dimensions, Strange faces off with villains in major world cities - except that, because the laws of physics don’t quite apply, he’ll run up and across buildings, traditional “up” and “down” twisted into a bizarre real-world M.C. Escher drawing. And when he begins to harness his magical powers, Strange can manipulate time, leading to a clever finale in which the action rewinds and restarts, lending a dreamlike tone to the proceedings.
Doctor Strange doesn’t represent the best of what Marvel can do, but for a movie about a secondary character in the company’s vast arsenal, the modest pleasures just barely outweigh the déjà vu.
Production company: Marvel Studios
Worldwide distribution: Disney, http://movies.disney.com/all-movies
Producer: Kevin Feige
Executive producers: Charles Newirth, Stan Lee, Victoria Alonso, Stephen Broussard, Louis D’Esposito
Screenplay: Jon Spaihts and Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill
Cinematography: Ben Davis
Production design: Charles Wood
Editors: Wyatt Smith, Sabrina Plisco
Music: Michael Giacchino
Main Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton