Director: Scott Derrickson
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams
In recent years it has been the comparatively lesser-known corners of the Marvel universe which have provided the best that the studio has had to offer, with underdogs Guardians Of The Galaxy and Ant-Man kicking up the most entertainment while working with lower expectations thanks to their relative obscurity. Relative being the operative word when comparing titles offered up from such an unstoppable behemoth. Nevertheless, as Marvel continues to mercilessly pummel DC in terms of quality of output, Doctor Strange arrives as probably the biggest unknown yet.
Once again the studio has landed the material in the hands of a director with little experience in the field of spectacle. Scott Derrickson is best known for his ultra-derivative horror movie Sinister. But the choice might not seem as counter-intuitive as one might initially imagine. Both Sinister and Doctor Strange are preoccupied with the meeting of worlds and the consequences of such volatile collisions. Where his previous material saw Ethan Hawke discovering a malevolent demonic presence pushing into our reality, here Benedict Cumberbatch stumbles upon multitudinous plains of reality all existing on top of one another. The canvas on which he presents these ideas has been stretched open remarkably.
Cumberbatch plays the titular neurosurgeon Stephen Strange, an arrogant perfectionist whose mastery of his art is decimated in an intense car accident. Despite several risky surgeries, his hands prove damaged beyond repair, sending Strange into a narcissistic spiral of obsession. His restless search for a remedy to his situation divides him from erstwhile love interest Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams, spirited but underused) and sends him journeying to Nepal for an altogether more mystical solution.
Thus he finds himself under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who reveals to him a more spiritual and magical alternative to conventional medicines and more. Strange scoffs initially, until a kaleidoscopic exercise in astral projection shows him the greater possibilities outside of his narrow viewpoint. Strange becomes the Ancient One’s apt pupil just in time, as a serious threat from within their mystical order promises to break apart the fabric of reality (a sorely underwritten Mads Mikkelsen).
In visual terms, Doctor Strange presents some of the most arresting material Marvel have conjured in a little while as Derrickson and his effects team unspool the universe with the aid of the Christopher Nolan playbook. So look forward to plenty of tessellating buildings as whole city blocks begin folding in on themselves. Elsewhere, the mirror world optimises use of a shattered glass effect and, in an aforementioned sequence that’s impressive and irksome in equal measure, Strange is propelled through a variety of inter-dimensional playgrounds with the look and feel of 60’s psychedelia. Imagine descending through an infinity of high-def Microsoft screen savers and you’re part of the way there. Pretty and technically impressive it may be, but it’s all smoke and mirrors, as beneath it all Doctor Strange finds Marvel falling back on a conspicuously tired template.
Where Ant-Man and Civil War actively tried to explore different narrative structures, Doctor Strange locks comfortably onto the token ‘bad-guy-stole-something-powerful’ routine (see all of Phase Two) and runs it through the necessary motions. Deja vu hamstrings Derrickson’s work again. And while the narrative seasaws between this and the necessary evils of yet another origin story, it borrows conspicuously from the likes of The Matrix and Star Wars in order to get from points A to B to C. There are revelations and twists here that ought to be shocking and involving, yet they’re so naggingly familiar that their effect is diluted. Granted, Doctor Strange more or less shakes free of these for a final act that’s happily a little more unusual, but the overall effect is solid and sturdy as opposed to feeling (as is clearly intended) thrilling or innovative.
Along the way you’ll never have heard as much mystical guff since Hogwarts closed it’s doors. There’s a mountain of exposition crammed in here, enough to warrant handing out an appendix to audience members leaving the theatre so they can cross-reference the movie’s private encyclopedia before they return for a second viewing. The cast handle this all admirably. Cumberbatch is a solid lead imbuing Strange with arrogance and a merciful self-deprecating wit. Elsewhere Chiwetel Ejiofor brings dependable civility and dignity to trainer-turned-sidekick Mordo, while Swinton’s Ancient One is comfortably the pick of the bunch; the most memorable feminine presence to have appeared of late in Marvel’s sausagey menagerie, and even then tellingly androgynous.
Marvel’s grand plan is no secret, and they’re actively boastful of the slew of movies still to come in this ever-growing weave of superhero sagas. As such it’s no surprise whatsoever to see the return of Doctor Strange promised come the end credits. Those who’ve come to believe that little of value lies in the traditional post-credits sting might want to rethink their attitude on this one, as Doctor Strange presents two to keep your eyes on and both seem decidedly pertinent to future instalments coming to a multiplex near you. Derrickson’s film is, ultimately, just another episode in the most expensive serial ever presented to cinema audiences.
It’s not a bad film at all. It’s fun and funny, playful and punctual (clocking in at under two hours is something these movies should aim for more often). The sensibility is a shade more Saturday-teatime than the furrowed brow more recently offered by the Russos with Captain America, but it’s not quite got the charm of Ant-Man. With further movies assured, Doctor Strange is happy to keep things in neutral, bolstered by enough eye-candy to all but guarantee an Oscar nod for VFX. But you almost wish that security hadn’t been there. Without it, this could’ve been a far more daring proposition. Behind those magic eye visuals is the same old story.