Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!
What's the big deal?
Doctor Strange is an action superhero film released in 2016 and is the fourteenth entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU. Based upon the comic book character of the same name, the film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as an arrogant surgeon who discovers a mystical art capable of near-limitless power as the world faces a danger like no other. The film also stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong and Mads Mikkelsen and was directed by long-time fan of the character Scott Derrickson. Like most MCU films, it was a success at the box office with global takings in excess of $677 million but it was also a hit with critics who praised the imaginative action scenes and high-quality visual effects. The film also introduced some of the more fantastical elements of the Marvel universe into the MCU, focusing on magic and mysticism rather than technology and science.
What's it about?
Stephen Strange is a brilliant and pioneering surgeon based in New York who suffers a career-ending car crash, leaving him with irreparable nerve damage to both his hands. Determined to overcome his injuries, Strange's arrogance causes him to reject help from his colleagues (who he considers inferior to himself) and even his former lover Christine Palmer. Hearing about one man who regained the use of his legs after a catastrophic spinal injury, Strange tracks him down and discovers that his only hope is a secretive place called Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu.
However, Strange soon finds out that Kamar-Taj is no medical facility—it is a spiritual place led by the Ancient One who promises to show Strange the true nature of reality. After learning that there are numerous universes interconnected with each other and that power can be drawn from them to achieve almost anything, Strange begs to be taught the mystic arts. But his arrogance reminds the Ancient One of another former pupil, Kaecilius, who has recently stolen forbidden texts in order to invite the dark lord Dormammu to Earth and claim it in exchange for immortality.
What's to like?
After a couple of underwhelming efforts, I feared that Marvel might have been resting on their laurels but Doctor Strange is a visually arresting tonic to the likes of Ant-Man. The film's myriad of complex visual sequences are amazing to watch and give the action in the film an added dimension, no pun intended. It feels reminiscent of Inception with characters running over walls and ceiling and huge cities folding into themselves. The martial arts are crisp and exhilarating, further heightened by unusual additions such as Strange's sentient cloak and the brightly-lit whips of mystic energy and shields. This is a great film to watch and shows some thought behind the product. This isn't just people chucking fireballs and lightning bolts around the place.
Cumberbatch makes for an interesting character, one who evolves through the course of the film in the same way that Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark did in the very first MCU film Iron Man. It's not just the character arc they share—the film isn't afraid to inject some humour into the film such as Strange's cloak often acting against its owner's will. The supporting cast are also first class: Swinton's Ancient One is a refreshing change from the stereotypical "old Asian mentor" role usually seen while Mikkelsen is one of Hollywood's most effective and underused villains and delivers the goods as the seemingly unstoppable Kaecilius. I like how they avoided making the film feel like a Harry Potter, bringing in some truly mind-bending sequences not seen since the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
- Derrickson is such a fan of the character that he spent quite a bit of his own money producing a concept video for Marvel when they were searching for a director. The concept detailed the fight on the astral plain between Strange and Kaecilius' henchman while a doctor fought to save his life in real-life in hospital, a scene which then appears in the film.
- When McAdams is spooked in the broom cupboard by the falling mop and bucket, her reaction is genuine. It was never intended but because she stayed in character throughout, Derrickson kept it in the film.
- As The Ancient One is an old man in the comics, actors like Morgan Freeman, Bill Nighy and Ken Watanabe were considered for the role before Swinton was cast. Derrickson felt that The Ancient One was a title instead of a person and deliberately chose someone different to avoid negative racial stereotyping. Instead, the casting of Swinton led to accusations of Whitewashing.
What's not to like?
For all the ideas and concepts on show, the film does a damn good job of trying to confuse you. Much like Inception, the action becomes hard to follow at times as characters run at seemingly impossible angles while the constantly shifting background distracts from the action in the foreground. The ending is also mightily confusing, despite the incredible visuals of characters walking forwards through a scene of destruction occurring around them backwards. It almost feels as though the powers of Doctor Strange are limitless, which does rob the film of some tension. After all, what edge do the baddies have if they have the exact same abilities?
As enjoyable as the film is, it doesn't quite reach the same heights as Avengers Assemble or Guardians Of The Galaxy. It feels too familiar to stand out among the rest of the MCU, in terms of narrative more than anything as the scenes in Kathmandu are just as dizzying to see as the various effects on display when Strange is flung through space and time. The film's trippy effects and understanding of metaphysical states aren't the easiest concepts to understand; you just have to wing it even if you don't fully get it. Strange is also a difficult character to fully get behind due to his self-centred nature and Lamborghini; unless you happen to be a self-absorbed neurosurgeon suddenly discovering redemption, he doesn't represent us much.
Should I watch it?
Doctor Strange is certainly one of the more unusual efforts from Marvel and that alone makes it worthwhile. It's also much better than some of their weaker efforts like The Incredible Hulk and the aforementioned Ant-Man. Going forward, it will be interesting to see how Strange can interact fully with the rest of the MCU but assuming this odd blend of Eastern mysticism and cutting-edge CG works as well as it does here, I'm not too worried.
Great For: fans of the character, pot heads, magicians
Not So Great For: epilepsy sufferers, anyone who has had enough of superheroes
What else should I watch?
Casual observers might think that each of the Marvel 'Phases' would finish with the Avengers films but no. Phase 3 begun after the underwhelming Ant-Man with the apocalyptic third entry in the Captain America series, Civil War. They definitely rediscovered their mojo with excellent films like Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 and the long-awaited introduction of one of their most prized properties, Spider-Man: Homecoming.
However, Phase 3's crown jewel would not only be hugely successful but also a legitimate ground-breaker. Black Panther offers a thrilling adventure featuring a mostly black cast and a black director, Ryan Coogler, which offers viewers something different from rich white men becoming heroes. The same is also true of the DC movie Wonder Woman, offering viewers a film featuring strong and powerful female cast that didn't reduce them to eye candy or distressed damsels. Perhaps the lesson here is that maybe studios should diversify their target audience - judging by the box office numbers, these films appeal to more people than just comic book nerds.
Dr Stephen Strange
Dr Christine Palmer
The Ancient One
Dr Nicodemus West
Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill*
Release Date (UK)
25th October, 2016
Action, Fantasy, Superhero
Academy Award Nomination
Best Visual Effects
© 2018 Benjamin Cox