Film Review | Doctor Strange Is A Colourful, Psychedelic Extravaganza That Breaks the Marvel Mould

Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelson, Tilda Swinton

Dr. Stephen Strange, a gifted but arrogant neurosurgeon, is involved in a car crash where his most prized assets – his hands – are mangled beyond use. After medical science fails him, he travels to Nepal and to the temple of the Kamar-Taj where he encounters The Ancient One, the leader of a secret order of magicians who prepares him to use his mind to heal his body. But at what cost does such a gift come?

I’m tired of Marvel films. I really am. And the thought of the dozen or so more which are planned in the coming years is enough to turn my stomach. There have been good Marvel films, absolutely, the first Thor, the second Captain America and last year’s Ant-Man were really enjoyable films and serve as the Marvel highlights of the last 8 years or so. Unfortunately the rest fall into the paint-by-numbers school of superhero filmmaking, a super-powered bad guy rises with world domination on his mind, a superhuman stands up to halt his gallop and a city gets destroyed in the final act. It’s very yawn-inducing at this stage. With that in mind I found myself reluctantly going to see Doctor Strange. Well, it’s nice to be surprised sometimes! While Doctor Strange is far from excellent, it falls in line with Thor and Ant-Man as the most unlikely and enjoyable of the Marvel efforts.

Benedict Cumberbatch
Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘Doctor Strange.’ Source

One thing that sets Doctor Strange apart from the other entries in the Marvel canon is colour. It is easily the most colourful of all the Marvel films, a two minute sequence detailing Strange’s disappearance into the astral plane is equal to Kubrick’s psychedelic fall through space in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stepping out on a vision quest, Strange’s journey looks like a bad trip and these visuals set it apart from the other Marvel films. It is an energetic and bold attempt to not necessarily rejuvenate the Marvel universe but to change direction for a film or two. But like all Marvel films the bombastic ‘wow’ is essential and Doctor Strange, as opposed to being a destruction filled feast for the eyes, presents us with a world where time and dimensions are malleable, where buildings fold in upon themselves and walls move and grow at will. The comparisons to Inception can’t be ignored as at certain points both films look like twins, characters display the ability to run up walls and defy gravity during some of the best choreographed action sequences you’re likely to see this year. Utilising these gravity resistant fighting ability presents us with one of the most interesting chase sequences in any Marvel film: walls become floors, ceilings disappear and steps bloom out of nowhere as the sorcerers scrap their way around a kaleidoscope city with shields and weapons drawn out of thin air. Visually it’s stunning.

Cumberbatch seems to be having great fun playing the various iterations of Strange, moving confidently from the arrogant, ostentatious surgeon to the fragile and damaged car crash survivor to the enlightened supreme magician. He adds a complexity that the character of Strange needed as without it I’m afraid this film could have quite easily descended into monotony. He seems comfortable in the Marvel universe and displays a charm that makes the initially obnoxious Strange quite likeable in the end. He is also well able to mix the comedy with the serious: his take on Dr. Stephen Strange features a lot of physical comedy.

The Ancient One -
Tilda Swinton stars as The Ancient One in ‘Doctor Strange.’ Source

It helps that excellent performers, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tilda Swinton, surround Cumberbatch. Swinton in particular seems very at ease playing The Ancient One, she is light and nimble in her interactions but she never strays too far from mystery, she leaves the audience wondering about her character and her motivations. The same can’t be said for Chiwetel Ejiofor. While Ejiofar is a wonderful actor, he is given far too little to do in the film and his great talent is wasted. His character is drawn with no real definition and while he plays Mordo with an earnest honesty, there is just no bite to him. Rachel McAdams is in the same boat with Christine Palmer, she is only lazily sketched and an afterthought of a character, but McAdams is game if nothing else. As for Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius, a script that seems solely geared at Stephen Strange and The Ancient One underserves him. His villain is ill defined, with no real purpose other than filling the villain shaped hole in the plot. As a former disciple of The Ancient One, he turns on his former teacher in order to bring destruction on the whole world. It is never explained why or what benefit it will bring.

Doctor Strange is an enjoyable diversion on the Marvel roadmap. It is fun, crammed with interesting visuals that are more than just SFX bombast and a lead character as complex as anything Marvel has been able to conjure to date. While Doctor Strange won’t stay with you long after leaving the cinema it is certainly one of the most entertaining films (Marvel or otherwise) you’ll see this year.

Doctor Strange is in cinemas now. View the trailer below.

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