Benedict Cumberbatch is an arrogant, lovable genius who solves problems against seemingly insurmountable odds. No, he’s not Sherlock, but Doctor Stephen Strange, one of the more barmy entries in Marvel Studios’ roster of superheroes. After suffering an accident due to his own arrogance, his job as a renowned neurosurgeon is put out of action. To return to work, Strange strives to restore the use of his hands, finally stumbling across a mysterious ‘cult’ based in Nepal…
There, with the aid of Tilda Swinton’s ‘The Ancient One’, an enigmatic figure with dark secrets, he trains his mind, in a rushed but intriguing 20-minute sequence. He’s arrogant and foolish, but his mentors, including Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo and Benedict Wong’s, er, Wong, see his potential. Will he overcome his own hubris to achieve greatness? Do I really even need to ask that question?
Strange’s narrative arc is a familiar one – the fall, the redemption, the shortcomings, the solution – but director Scott Derrickson manages to prevent this flick from becoming another stale offering in the Marvel universe. For one, it does away with the use of technical jargon and scientific explanations, and embraces the mesmerising, nonsensical world of magic while keeping a straight face. Its opening battle, where buildings twist and turn like bloodthirsty cogs, is only a fleeting glance at the world’s potential, and each burst of psychedelic brawling thereafter are intelligently differentiated from one another. It’s a world steeped in preposterous magical concepts of mirror dimensions and astral forms, but it works, because it’s just as believable as any other film in its franchise.
Sadly, with so many otherworldly concepts to get through, Doctor Strange does become bogged down in exposition. It’s still fascinating to listen to, much owing to Tilda Swinton’s reliably excellent delivery, but results in very little time afforded to developing characters such as, say, Mads Mikkelsen’s barely-fleshed-out baddie. It’s disappointing to see his character treated that way when Marvel finally shows a real awareness to its tired formula – the film may have found a cure to third act CGI-heavy explosive showdowns, but weak villains seems to be a recurring problem in need of similar treatment.
Yet when these mind-boggling concepts are put to use, the effects are often astounding. Running up skyscrapers, hopping between continents, reversing time – its visceral, excellent cinema, unique and purposeful, with enough ingenuity to prevent drawing any unearned comparisons to Inception. Further still, there are moments of quiet brilliance that shine through amid the crazed conflicts. A scene that takes place in suspended rain, with lightning sprawling across the screen like a cracked window, is both memorable in imagery, and extremely poignant. It’s sharp, mature writing, that functions as a worthy sendoff and a way to calm the film’s prior breakneck pace.
Oddly, despite the inherent silliness of the film’s ideas, its one of the most sensible Marvel films to date. Derrickson, who has worked beforehand on various horror films such as Sinister, makes clear in the film’s opening scene that there’s a real sense of menace and danger. Tragedy, desperation, and various inner conflicts are dealt with astutely, and Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange is as complex a character as any in the Marvel universe. Perhaps this also serves as reasoning for why the film’s comedic beats aren’t quite so successful, misplaced in almost every scene to give a light-hearted spirit that isn’t needed (save for a terrific exchange between Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius and Cumberbatch’s Strange).
It may not be quite as odd as its namesake, but the film is certainly as imaginative as any Marvel film has dared so far, offering visual splendour, an impressive amount of maturity, and a great character in Doctor Stephen Strange.