Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stulhbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton
Director: Scott Derrickson
Writers: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
2016 saw a continuation of the superhero trend that is dominating Hollywood right now with at least five major movies being released prior to Doctor Strange. In this kind of climate it’d be difficult for any one of these films to distinguish themselves from all the others. On one hand we did get Deadpool which won audiences over with its R-rated content and rule breaking but we also got X-Men: Apocalypse, a half-hearted, generic rehash of its previous instalments. Although Marvel is certainly guilty of following formulas that can get tiring at times, their films have mostly succeeded in this regard due to the different elements and genres they’ve been able to bring to their cinematic universe. Over the last couple of years for example they’ve made an espionage thriller in The Winter Soldier, a space opera in Guardians of the Galaxy and a heist movie in Ant-Man. In keeping with this tradition Doctor Strange depicts a genre unlike any other seen in the Marvel franchise: the mind-trip movie.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a highly successful and arrogant surgeon who loses the use of his hands in a car accident. His former girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), also a surgeon, tries to help him move on but Strange is determined to restore his hands through risky and experimental procedures. His obsession soon leads him to Kamar-Taj in Nepal where he is taken in by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a Celtic sorceress. There Strange discovers the existence of astral planes and other dimensions and is taught the teachings of the mystic arts. However Strange is quickly forced into action when a rogue sorcerer called Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) threatens the Sanctums that the Ancient One’s order is sworn to protect. With the help of friend and mentor Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Strange must master his abilities and defeat Kaecilius before he can complete a ritual that threatens their very existence.
When viewing Doctor Strange as a mind-trip action movie, the most obvious comparison to be drawn is Inception. Like the Nolan movie, Doctor Strange contains many action set pieces that bend and distort reality in spectacular ways. When the sorcerers enter the Sanctum, all bets are off as they freely defy the laws of nature in their mystic battles. Gravity becomes subjective, perception is skewed and time is not absolute. The film also undertakes a slightly more philosophical approach than the typical Marvel movie as Strange must learn to master his own failings before he can master the art of sorcery. He never does lose his arrogance, on the contrary he learns that arrogance is part of what makes him a great sorcerer, but rather learns to live and fight for a cause that is greater than himself. This arc is not unlike that of Tony Stark in the earlier Marvel films, but Strange has enough of its own identity both in its protagonist and as a film that it doesn’t feel like a simple retread.
Benedict Cumberbatch (in keeping with the law which holds that he must be in everything) plays the newest hero in the MCU canon proficiently with both humour and gravitas. As he portrays Strange in his narcissism, cockiness and resoluteness, it is near impossible to imagine any other actor in the role. The whitewashing that took place with the Ancient One is rather glaring (especially in a movie about a white man adopting and mastering an Eastern discipline and surpassing all of his ethnically variant peers in the process) but to Swinton’s credit nobody can play otherworldly quite like her. Although this film continues the Marvel tradition of underwriting its generic non-Loki antagonists, I found Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius to be one of the least generic ones to date. I cannot for the life of me remember what his motivation was but I do remember him being intimidating and clashing well with Strange in their scenes together. There’s also quite a fun character to be found in Strange’s cloak, very much in the vein of the magic carpet in Aladdin.
I can understand that someone with superhero fatigue might find the whole ‘origin story’ aspect of this film tiring, but for me Doctor Strange has a lot going for it. I like that the climax for instance did not boil down to a punching and kicking contest. Strange’s triumph is instead a result of his ingenuity and occurs in quite a clever and creative way. I also like Strange as a character, I liked the new dimension that this film added to the Marvel universe and, above all, I enjoyed the movie’s superb, psychedelic visuals (which pay off especially well when seen in 3D). Those who watch this film looking for weaknesses are certainly going to find them. The whitewashing is evident, McAdams’ role is little more than a token love interest and the typical Marvel formulas and tie-ins can be obtrusive. Still there is a lot to enjoy and a lot that is different from all the other blockbusters we’ve seen in recent years. Doctor Strange is a feast for the eyes that contains all the thrills and humour that Marvel is known for and was a relief to watch after a summer of disappointing blockbusters.