Given how ubiquitous Marvel Studios’ comic book adaptations have become, it would be easy to assume its cinematic universe is populated merely by production line, populist Blockbusters reluctant to take creative risks, but Marvel has shown that it is willing to make left field choices with its big-budget behemoth, particularly with its choices of directors, writers and cast members. Show the rest of this post…
In 2014 Marvel took arguably its biggest risk yet when it released Guardians of the Galaxy, a sci-fi epic featuring a roster of lesser-known heroes, including a talking raccoon, but that film was a hit, both critically and at the box office. Doctor Strange is a risk in a different sense, not just because it introduces us to an entirely new cast and hero in an already bloated fictional universe, but because the subject matter – sorcery and the “mystic arts” – could so easily have backfired.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Doctor Stephen Strange, a gifted but arrogant neurosurgeon who, pretty early on, is involved in a devastating car crash which seriously damages his hands, thus throwing his career into jeopardy. Medicine appears unable to fix him, no matter how left field he goes, so Strange looks further afield, to a secretive organisation in Kathmandu headed up by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), where he will learn that everything is not as it seems, in particular his perception of reality.
From there Derickson delivers on his promise that this will be a mind-bending experience, cutting loose on a series of trippy set pieces guided by the impressive visual effects work of Luma Pictures and Industrial Light and Magic. Strange learns how to teleport himself around the world in an instant; to separate his astral form from his body; and much more. But he also learns of a plot by a former pupil of The Ancient One, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) to surrender the earth to “the destroyer of worlds”, an entity called Dormammu, who lives in a dark dimension outside time. Strange must decide whether to follow his own path, or to be selfless and work with his new mentors.
The film is in some ways a triumph, but as a whole lacks the cohesion and charm of some of Marvel’s other comic book adaptations. Cumberbatch is well cast as Strange, although his character arc in this film means that, for the most part, he’s a pretty unlikeable protagonist. Though there are hints of development, he comes across as a charismatic but shallow centre for the film to revolve around, which isn’t helped by the fact that most of the supporting characters are thinly drawn, in particular Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Strange’s ex-girlfriend Christine (Rachel McAdams) and, unfortunately, Kaecilius, whose villainy just isn’t memorable. These are excellent actors, but the film really doesn’t use them enough. The supporting cast fares better in the form of Benedict Wong as Wong, with whom Cumberbatch has a winning, if short-lived, rapport, and Tilda Swinton, who is the best thing in the film as The Ancient One.
Derickson directs the action scenes with flair and there is some captivating stunt work in here allied to well designed visual effects which see cities collapsing in on themselves in an Inception-like way, and an arresting journey into the depths of the unknown multiverse. But while the action scenes are mostly impressive to look at, the rules of engagement here are too thinly drawn. At times its difficult to see exactly what’s going on, but more damagingly the sense of peril sometimes gets lost in the whirling special effects.
There are flashes of humour in here which work well to offset the comic book exposition that is required to get us all up to speed on what’s going on, and tonally Doctor Strange should be able to match up to the other Avengers with whom he is destined to share a universe with one day. Quite how Marvel will deal with the action stakes in forthcoming projects given the implications in this film I’m not sure, but I look forward to seeing how they do it.
I didn’t warm to Doctor Strange as quickly as I have to many of Marvel’s other heroes, but perhaps the character just needs time to settle. Cumberbatch will do better work in the role if he’s given a better story to work with – ideally a film in which the villains are more successful and the supporting cast is given more of a chance to make an impact.