Director: Scott Derrickson
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong and Tilda Swinton
Plot: An arrogant surgeon (Cumberbatch) loses his hands in a car accident and seeks help from a monastery in Kathmandu, one that teaches him the powers of mystical forces.
Dr. Strange, perhaps more so than Guardians of the Galaxy, is that one Marvel movie that was going to be difficult to tie into the others. Guardians of the Galaxy’s charm was how separate it was from the Avengers series, but Dr. Strange has to directly connect with the other movies. However, in a world full of mysticism and mind-bending magic (as well as time travel, that tricky beast to all screen-writers!), how can Dr. Strange even work in an already-established universe? The answer is surprisingly both simple and Marvel: have fun and the rest will click into place?
In fact, Scott Derrickson seems more concerned with the other big problem Dr. Strange offers: yet another origin story. In a cinematic age, where we are bloated with superhero movies, do we have the patience for yet another to be introduced? Stephen Strange doesn’t have the guarantee of an easy win like Spiderman or the X-Men, so as the origin story begins, there is a blank canvas that struggles to grip viewers. No one really knows who Dr. Strange is. A lot of the people watching this film are here because Dr. Strange is a jigsaw piece to rest of Marvel, rather than for the individual film itself. However, Scott Derrickson uses the sense of unknown as a weapon. Stephen Strange is so far from the ideal hero figure that we are hooked on this story just to see how this despicable figure can become that symbol of Avengers goodness. Strange makes Tony Stark seem like a loving philanthropist. Benedict Cumberbatch plays him as a cross between Gregory House and James Bond: a cocky, rude super-doctor, but one that wraps himself in the image of charismatic, expensive watch-wearing gentleman. Every scene that highlights him as a figure to be loved is followed by one that paints him in an even more negative light that he begins with. He is introduced as a pop culture-spouting hero, saving a patient’s life with ease in difficult situations. That is then followed up by Strange turning down patients because their cases are too easy or too difficult, ones that will kill his 100% win record. Later, his hands are crushed and it is impossible not to feel pity for the wretched surgeon, fighting a losing battle to get the use of his hands back. However, just as he is back in our good books, he launches a verbal torrent of abuse on his one friend that will make you loathe the character once more. It is a wonderfully complex performance from Benedict Cumberbatch who doesn’t feel watered down in the slightest by the blockbuster material, approaching Dr. Strange with the same energy he embodies Alan Turing and Sherlock Holmes. He is yet another perfectly cast Marvel hero, especially when he picks up the goatee and famous Dr. Strange cape halfway through the film. That is when he might as well have walked from the pages of the comic itself. The only thing that doesn’t quite work in the origin story is love interest, Rachel McAdams. It’s not a bad performance, far from it, but she is so apart from the rest of the movie, she struggles to quite fit in, other than a grounded sense of what we expect from an origin story. She acts as a human foil to Strange and it is a shame to watch McAdams spend most of the movie on the side-lines.
Outside of the human element of the movie, we have the action. And comparisons to Inception are no without their merit. It is the clear starting point for Derrickson’s vision, but he takes it to mind-blowing extremes. Certain set-pieces are extraordinary examples of cinematic technology. While one cannot help but wonder if Dr. Strange still claims the same wow factor on DVD or outside of its cinema 4K format, on the big screen, it is something to marvel at (pardon the pun). It demands a second viewing, just so the audience can try and get a second chance at registering what is going on. Buildings crumble in on themselves, gravity changes on a whim, doorways open up into other worlds… The same sense of fun that filled the second Thor movie’s finale is used with abundance here, earning the best gags. Humour is a strong weapon here, keeping the madness of what we are seeing in check. This is where the origin story comes helpful, because we need the naivety of newcomer Stephen Strange to understand the magical world that Derrickson throws us in. It is an amazing credit to Derrickson that Dr. Strange never becomes too much, explained with a smooth pace without denying us the full possibilities of the material. The fight scenes are remarkable, rapid martial arts segments in dizzying multi-verses. For a movie that had the danger of being the most alienating, Dr. Strange gets the simplest things right. The supporting cast are great fun, comic timing coming from Benedict Wong, charismatic sidekick duties from Chiwetel Ejiofor and enigmatic sensei posteuring from Tilda Swinton. Best of all is Mads Mikkelsen, the plot giving him far more screen time than most of Marvel’s disposable villains. The actor is given space to make something of his cynical zealot figure. Besides it would be criminal if one of Hollywood’s finest bad guy actors was given half a character in a Marvel movie.
On a whole, Dr. Strange is yet another success from Marvel, made even more impressive by the fact that so much could have gone wrong. It impresses with great character performances, breath-taking action sequences and most importantly, feels more than another chapter in the Marvel game. It is a movie in its own right. Suddenly Marvel’s most low-key hero is its currently most talked about. How Strange!
Final Verdict: Cumberbatch and Derrickson make a fine team, side-stepping the easy problems and delivering one of the blockbusters of the year.