Who’d be Marvel Studios, eh? You rule over a genre phenomenon started with your properties, albeit with the heavy lifting initially done by other studios, while your rivals flounder and fight for scraps amongst themselves. Yet, fans and the audience at large waits for you to slip and fall to the bottom of the barrel to scrape at the lowest-common-dominator like the rest of them.
To “stick or twist” must be a constant question for the Disney subsidiary and with their latest origin story of Stephen Strange’s transformation from brilliant but arrogant MD into the titular Doctor Strange, Marvel has seemingly gone all in on one of their toughest pitches to date. After the guaranteed success of Captain America: Civil War earlier this year, Marvel has now made their bravest move so far and there’s nothing in the least bit tentative about it.
It’s very easy to mistake consistency for routine, and it’s a mistaken criticism leveled many times at some Marvel films, but Doctor Strange‘s opening feels more like the latter in its opening scenes. Mads Mikkelsen’s villain, Kaecilius, mounts a raid on a Nepalese library and escapes via a portal to the streets of London, only to be pursued by Tilda Swinton’s sorceress, The Ancient One, but fends her off in the Mirror Dimension unseen by the hoi polloi of England’s bustling metropolis. We then cut to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange in the midst of conducting a brain surgery procedure, dripping with so much conceit that he goads his nurses into testing him on release dates of forgotten pop songs (think Dr. House: The Younger Years).
At this point, Strange could just as easily be Tony Stark with a medical degree, especially when we witness him in his penthouse surrounded by any luxury one could ask for. But it is the use of Pink Floyd’s LSD infused anthem, Interstellar Overdrive, during this scene that foretells of a different passage for this Marvel hero. Subsequently, Strange is involved in a near-fatal car crash that renders his skilled hands virtually useless and after some abortive attempts at rehabilitation, our eponymous doctor sets off to Nepal to seek the spiritual healings of The Ancient One at Kamar-Taj.
After being saved by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Karl Mordo from a local mugging, Strange is introduced to The Ancient One and begs the follically-challenged sorceress to fix his broken digits. When told the answer lies not in physical remedies but in the expansion of his spirit and mind, Strange scoffs. He becomes convinced, though, after being sent on a reality-warping journey through space and time that’s so lucidly realized, one can only assume that more than a few of the design team had a misspent youth tuning in and dropping out.
This spectacular sequence is a real statement of stylistic intent from director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and as Strange rapidly learns more of this brave new world, we are treated to several more as the Marvel mold isn’t so much broken as shattered into a quantum firework display to introduce the Multiverse to the big screen. After some genuinely charming banter with Benedict Wong’s humorless librarian, Strange comes face-to-face with Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius and a globe-spanning game of cat and mouse ensues.
Obviously, with this being a Marvel film, it has to end with an all-powerful force threatening a major city – Hong Kong this time round – as Kaecilius sparks the invasion of powerful being from another dimension. This leads to an ingenious showdown between Strange and a the trans-dimensional forces as the good doctor uses his new found abilities to control time itself to his advantage.
During the breathless last hour of the movie, many a mind will be melted by the sheer audacity of the characters nimble maneuvering through worlds within worlds and the spaces between them. In this sense, Doctor Strange is a new breed of hero in the Marvel cinematic universe, but only superficially.
Much will be and already has been made of Doctor Strange‘s startling visuals. While many will equate them to the likes of Christopher Nolan’s Inception and the Wachowski’s Matrix trilogy, more well-watched viewers will notice a striking similarity with Timur Bekmambetov’s Nightwatch and Daywatch. It really cannot be overstated how dizzying these fractal sequences can be and it’s a rare recommendation, but no less sincere, to say that the 3D upgrade is most certainly worth it for Marvel’s latest. However, it is the fact that is a Marvel film that holds it back from being the ultimate trip it so easily could have been.
While the Shakespearean cast of Cumberbatch, Swinton, and Ejiofor all do sterling work with their given characters and are given ample time to express personalities amongst all the necessary exposition, Rachel McAdams and Mads Mikkelsen are very much pushed to the periphery. Perhaps appropriately, McAdams’ (kind of) love interest, Christine Palmer, feels like she belongs in a different film but as Strange’s one remaining anchor to the “real world”, she just about gets away with her one-dimensional (no pun intended) portrayal.
Less forgivable is Mikkelsen being given such fleeting screen time in which he only has few precious moments to deliver pithy explanations and one-liners. The lauded Danish actor is already one of the all-time great conduits of villainy on both the big and small screen and his reduced role here becomes a frustrating sample of what an arch-antagonist he could have been if the film didn’t become so concerned with setting up yet another all-pervading evil.
Although the dark denizen won’t be returning for the highly-anticipated Avengers: Infinity War two-parter, the need to do some groundwork for the continuation of Marvel’s flagship product still seeps through at times. There may be only one mention of the Avengers themselves during proceedings and no other familiar faces are seen until the obligatory post-credits sequence, it’s becoming increasingly hard to watch a new Marvel installment without constantly wondering how it will affect later ones.
It’s almost certainly an unavoidable issue of pre-awareness by now and to its credit, Doctor Strange is the most far removed from the franchise’s standard-bearer since Avengers burst onto the big screen in 2012. But with such a strong sense of independence and unique visual flair, one has to wonder if being part of the Marvel Universe these days is more of a hindrance than a help when it leaves its more familiar settings.
That said, regardless of one’s feelings about this ever-expanding cinematic universe and its connotations on its individual entries, Doctor Strange is a stimulating journey through its own world, and many others.