What does it take to cure a man of franchise fatigue? Explosions? Deadpool? Paul Rudd as Ant Man? Surprise appearances by Martin Freeman in a Captain America film?
Apparently none of these things – it takes magic! Doctor Strange is the movie I didn’t know I’d been waiting for Marvel to make since The Avengers. This is the film that changes the game. It brings the weird world of 1960s psychedelia and mysticism to the forefront of cinematic consciousness, and it does it with a confident bravado that befits a billion-dollar franchise. Doctor Strange doesn’t care that it’s weird – it embraces it and goes for broke, which is what makes it a success.
Below lie spoilers. Read on if you dare.
Doctor Stephen Strange, a brilliant, arrogant, and yet not wholly unlikeable neurosurgeon, loses the use of his hands in a car accident. When Western medicine fails him, he travels to Nepal in search of healing, and is eventually taken in by the mysterious Ancient One. Becoming her apprentice, Strange learns the way of sorcerers, and must eventually use his mystical powers to defend the earth against the incursion of the Dark Dimension and its hideous, ravenous being, Dormammu.
I awaited this film more eagerly than any Marvel film to date. I love weird, offbeat stuff, and despite not knowing much about the character, I had a good idea that this could be a weird and offbeat experience indeed. The wondrous visuals of the various dimensions leap off the pages of the comic books and are infused with a wondrous and strange colourful depth. I particularly liked the scene early in the film where Strange’s hands grew hands which grew more hands. Later on, when Strange does extra-dimensional battle in an operating theatre, his actions are shown to have minute, poltergeist-like effects in the real world. It was a lovely touch that added so much to our understanding of how the various dimensions of the film worked without being beaten about the head with exposition.
This is of particular importance. Origin films are necessarily crammed fit to burst with exposition, but here it forms a sensible part of the plot. The workings of the multiverse are shown through Strange’s lessons, or as part of battles. The film never seems to break its own rules, but it does firmly set them. Each plot point is a logical step forward, and nothing seems superfluous. Director Scott Derrickson is clearly a student of the old maxim, “show, don’t tell”. The film doesn’t talk down to its audience, but nor does it leave them scratching their heads. It works hard to emphasise the gravity of Strange’s decisions – should he return to neurosurgery where he can save but handfuls of people (and himself through finanicial gain), or remain a sorcerer and save the world?
The casting is on-point – mostly British actors being American but acting in that wonderful way that only British actors can. Benedict Cumberbatch revels in the role and clearly enjoys bringing a thespian nuance to the classic tale of a vain main conquering his ego for the greater good. His resonant baritone at times has shades of Harrison Ford; indeed, at one point I wished he had been cast in the upcoming Han Solo film. The man has swagger, but gravitas by the bucketload – two things which benefit the character hugely. He also has a magnificent beard and sexy distinguished grey streaks above his ears. Man crush alert. Rachel McAdams (an American, but we won’t hold that against her), obviously realising she made a terrible mistake leaving us with Gwenyth Paltrow by turning down Pepper Potts in Iron Man, appears here as Christine Palmer, Strange’s former partner and confidant. Unfortunately, whilst she is clearly shown to be an excellent and caring doctor and medical professional, Palmer is mainly used as a scream lady here. I hope her role is more fleshed out in subsequent films.
Tilda Swinton excels as the Ancient One. Normally I’m not a huge fan of hers, but I am convinced there was no-one better for the role than her. She conveys a pleasant and convivial menace; an intensity masked by her easy, modern dialogue. Refreshingly there is precious little Ye Olde World talk in this film; it reminds us that the Ancient One’s students have all been drawn from the real, modern world. Chiwetel Ejiofor has some fun developing a character likely to become a future villain; it’s a shame because Mordo is such a nice guy. Benedict Wong brings a fun lightness of touch to Wong, Strange’s eventual sidekick. And Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, ten years since he burst onto English-speaking screens as the evil Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, continues to remind us about why he is one of the best villains around.
It’s a refreshing change for a Marvel film to not be about whose explosion is bigger. There is a joyous amount of imagination at play here. The effects whizzes and designers behind the film obviously have a love for optical illusions and logical challenges, not to mention just generally great art direction. Sequences where Mirror Dimension New York collapse and expand at the whims of Strange and Kaecilius as they do battle are everything that we wanted out of Inception after that marketing campaign. The climax, where the destruction of Hong Kong is thrown into reverse as the sorcerers run forwards through it was truly breathtaking, with clear visual and musical homages to The Matrix of which I thoroughly approved. And the idea that a Marvel film could be resolved by a wizard bargaining for the fate of the world was all but unthinkable until a week ago.
I could continue to rave at length about this film, but I’m almost done. Doctor Strange is, amongst other things, a glorious vindication for fans of 1990s hero films like The Shadow, and The Phantom; 1930s-set hero films to which Doctor Strange owes a huge debt. Indeed, there are elements of their Art Nouveau/Art Deco settings reflected throughout the film. Doctor Strange imitates the way all those films lean on various forms of non-Western mysticism to form the basis of their plots, but because it’s happening inside the existing Marvel universe it automatically receives more credibilty. Marvel are lucky to have such a foundation to build upon; it makes the potential directions for future stories virtually limitless.
Finally, the music. One of the increasingly relevant criticisms of the Marvel films is their lacklustre musical scoring. This is especially close to my heart as I basically learned to appreciate classical music off the back of soundtracks from James Bond and Star Wars. There is not a unifying musical idea which links any Marvel film. Even The Avengers: Age of Ultron didn’t reuse the theme from The Avengers. None of the characters even has a leitmotif for other composers to work from. And I think this is a real shame. At best the music of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is bland and inoffensive (which is what happens when you ask Alan Silvestri to write some of your scores). Fortunately, they got Michael Giacchino on board for Doctor Strange, and thank goodness. This is the man behind The Incredibles, Up, Star Trek (and Into Darkness and Beyond), and a whole host of other effective, wondrous, enjoyable scores. And at last, there is a coherent musical identity for a character in the Marvel universe. Doctor Strange has a soundtrack with a beautiful mix of modern, electronically-enhanced orchestra, as well as exotic eastern sounds, organ and HARPSICHORD! If anything says “date this film’s sound in the 1960s and 1970s” it is organ and harpsichord. It seems like every man and his dog was allowed to let loose on this film, including its composer, and if that does not speak to Marvel’s confidence in its people then I do not know what does.
I really cannot recommend Doctor Strange enough. It was so refreshingly different, I was overjoyed when I left the cinema and almost walked straight back in to watch it again. Marvel needs to keep producing intimate and character-driven films like these between their giant epics, because this is what will keep people interested. Please, see this film in Imax, and in 3D if it works for you. It is a magnificent experience.