Doctor Strange

Directed by Scott Derrickson

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Michael Stuhlbarg and Benjamin Bratt
In UK Cinemas October 25th, 2016
Watch on iTunes

by Richard Hamer

With the fourteenth film in its ‘Cinematic Universe’, you’d imagine Marvel would be trying extra-hard to distinguish individual entries in its series, to keep things fresh in a packed schedule of titles that (often intentionally) blur into one another. So it’s interesting to report that Doctor Strange is such a heady combination of new and old: Visually, this is one of the most original and arresting creative visions in any cinematic universe, taking its heavy Inception influences and running with them. As a story, however, this is pure by-the-numbers stuff, as rigid to the Marvel story template as you might expect. It’s exhilarating, but one can’t help but feel that Doctor Strange robs itself of greater things by sticking to the safety of the road well-travelled.

A shame, as the set-up is intriguing: An unusually brutal ‘origin’ that sees arrogant neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) suffer a horrific car accident that leaves the nerves in his hands damaged beyond repair. His career is finished, as he throws all of his wealth behind increasingly experimental medical procedures. A broken man, Stephen follows a tenuous lead to Nepal, where he learns of a spiritual treatment that may fix his hands and give him back the life he lost…

…And then Tilda Swinton makes him into a wizard.

The point being, there isn’t a need to regurgitate the synopsis past this point. Stephen Strange’s transformation from prideful but defeated surgeon into Master of the Mystic Arts is extremely well choreographed but utterly predictable, a combination of training and montage, light humour and well-handled exposition. It’s breezy and enjoyable, leading smoothly to a confrontation with a Super Villain called Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and the saving of the world from another Evil Portal In The Sky.

I’m being intentionally flippant here: There is an art to creating a blockbuster that maintains this consistent level of engagement and amusement. Doubly so when its an origin story, and even more so when the world introduces so many ‘mystical’ elements new to the Marvel universe. It’s not to be sniffed at.

And yet: Doctor Strange feels likes a film with all the grit filed off, polished so smooth some of what gives it form has been taken off. Its often shallow and lacking in human warmth, any genuine emotion beyond the superficial: Cumberbatch does strong work early on, but struggles delivering awkward jokes that don’t quite fit a character whose gotten over everything way too fast. Rachael McAdams, as surgeon Christine Palmer, finds little to do with a role that comes off as (depressingly, yet another) Superhero Girlfriend Character in a relationship that feels functional and cold. Similarly, Mads Mikkelsen becomes another in a long line of forgettable Marvel villains; his motivations barely explored, his lack of any personal connection to our hero creates someone who feels like they sit outside the story. A plot device in a ponytail.

Only Tilda Swinton as ‘The Ancient One’ gets to have any real fun here, in a wonderful performance so hypnotic, understated and just so thoroughly Tilda Swinton I wouldn’t be surprised if the outfit we see on screen is just her own clothes she rocked up on set with.

And while we’re being positive, it is worth reiterating that Doctor Strange is visually amazing, deserving of the cinema experience, benefiting immeasurably from the energy of a huge audience. The battles between sorcerers are all about the manipulation of mind and matter, twisting and reshaping the physical world: Gravity switches, buildings cave in on themselves and entire cities explode and reform. To even imagine how these sequences were storyboarded, let alone produced and choreographed, is beyond me. Suffice to say, when it comes around to Oscar season, the team behind this more than deserve a nod.

So where does that leave us? It goes without saying that Doctor Strange is a popcorn movie more than worth your time: Loud, funny and spectacular. Bring your friends. There is simply, beneath it all, an undercurrent of disappointment: Doctor Strange knowingly undersells itself, choosing light over epic every time, funny over dramatic. This isn’t a movie about about finding new purpose after great tragedy, of accepting what you can’t change and embracing what you can. It’s a movie about Benedict Cumberbatch becoming a wizard, and – first time out at least – that’s more than OK.


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