Doctor Strange FILM REVIEW
Doctor Strange is the role Benedict Cumberbatch was born to play. Whether he was born to play it with an American accent is open to question. Sure, Strange is an American character but it seems odd to cast Cumberbatch then rob him of one his most distinctive assets. It’s a bit like casting Yul Brynner then making him wear a wig. Surely you’d simply rewrite the character to be bald!
But the accent isn’t a deal-breaker. Cumberbatch owns the role of Strange in way Robert Downey Jr owns Tony Stark. The similarities don’t stop with the beards. Both start out in their origin films as self-obsessed jerks (albeit charismatic ones), and even when they become heroes there remains an certain arrogance borne of a self-belief in their own intelligence. If the MCU ever decides to create an Illuminati like in the Marvel comics, you’d could easily see Stark and Strange taking leading roles, side-by-side.
In case you don’t know the broad strokes of the character and his origins here are the essentials as related in the film. Dr Stephen Strange is a shit-hot and cocky neurosurgeon who spends as quick as he earns. And looking at his watch collection, grand piano and sports car, he earns a lot. You never get to see him play the piano which is a shame, because soon into the film he loses the use of his hands in a car crash, and you desperately want him to say, “Will I ever play the piano again?” (though composer Michael Giacchino seems to pick up on the gag with a piano riff underscoring this sequence… though that may have been subliminal.)
To be fair, the quip factor for the first half of the film is relatively low for a Marvel movie. It’s not exactly dour but it’s not trying for Joss Whedon zingers with every line either. Later in the film Strange complains, “People used to laugh at my jokes,” to which Wong (we’ll get to him) replies, “Did they work for you?” which just about says it all. In the second half, though, the quips come quick and fast, and there are some doozies.
Back at the plot, Strange learns of a man who was paralysed from the waist down with no hope of recovery… but who recovered! Strange seeks him out, asks him how he was cured. The man sends him to Nepal where Strange expects to find a clinic doing dodgy experimental research. Instead he finds The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who teaches him the mystics arts. At first he just wants to know how to use his mind to fix his body, but with the help of some of the Ancient One’s other acolytes, the warrior Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and scary librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) he learns how to become a kind of supernatural Avenger and a Sorcerer Supreme.
Which is fortunate, because at the same time, one of the Ancient One’s former pupils, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), is planning to turn the world over to a dark dimension mega-entity, Dormammu, in return for eternal life.
Cumberbatch is magnificent throughout, in a film that – visually and tonally – is one of the most faithful superhero adaptations yet. There are moments when it looks like a Jack Kirby page come to life; or a Steve Ditko page come to life; or a Gene Colan pose come to life. It is cosmic, and weird, and – yes – awesome in the truest sense of the word, and boasts a denouement that is totally in tune with the bizarre vibe, not just another big battle scene.
The action is amazing, possibly the most strikingly different seen in a film since The Matrix. Sure, there are a couple of moments that recall Inception, but it goes so much further, and then saves another unique visual conceit for the final battle. After all these years, 2001: A Space Odyssey may have lost its title as the ultimate trip.
The main drawback with the film is that for all its aesthetic freshness and mystic trappings, it’s pretty much the standard Marvel origin movie formula. It’s Iron Man with added hoodoo. There’s not an awful lot of plot and most of the mystical exposition amounts to little more than, “Put them together and what have you got? Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.”
Once again the main villain is criminally underused. You have to wonder why they bother casting people of the calibre of Mads Mikkelsen – who’s great as far as it goes – if all they’re require to do is glower and rant. Kaecilius’s back story is delivered in about two lines. Maybe Marvel is trying to singlehandedly disprove that old adage about villains being more fun to play than heroes, because Cumberbatch looks like he’s having way more fun.
Ejiofor and Wong fare better in support roles that both look like they’re set to develop in further MCU movies. Indeed, Wong’s Wong (that’s just weird) drops an Easter egg late in the film that suggests he’s more in tune with the wider MCU universe than first appears, and Mordo… well, let’s just say, keep your eye on him.
The FX are eyepopping, that’s undeniable, but at times there’s a neon, squeaky cleanness to them that suggests a videogame vibe rather than a dark magic one. This may be a deliberate stylistic choice (perhaps to make sure Strange fits more seamlessly into the bigger MCU?), but something a bit darker and messier may have fitted the tone of the rest of the film better.
But if Marvel can produce a formulaic film, that – using a little Strange and unusual production magic – is as much fun as Doctor Strange, then long live the Marvel formula, frankly.
Review by Dave Golder