Talented neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange has it all. Beautiful apartment in New York, fancy wardrobe, fast car, on/off relationship with a stunning co-worker (Rachel McAdams) and an enviable surgical career built on his ability to fix the unfixable. But his life is shattered forever when he is involved in a horrendous car crash (don’t text and drive kids) and develops a permanent tremor in his hands. When Western medicine fails to cure him he turns to a man who has mysteriously recovered from a broken back (Benjamin Bratt). Strange finds his way to Kamar-Taj where The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are waiting to teach him that there’s so much more to the world than he knows. His teachings in the mystic arts are rudely interrupted by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) a zealot who has lost faith in The Ancient One and has a darker fate in mind for Earth. Can Strange find his inner sorcerer and stop him before the world is plunged into darkness?
As a massive Marvel fan I was beyond thrilled when it was announced that Benedict would be getting his own Marvel franchise and I’m delighted to report that Doctor Strange is a thoroughly charming origin story with real heart featuring moments of surprisingly goofy humour and innovative, trippy, spellbinding visuals.
Benedict Cumberbatch is so good as Stephen Strange. We first see him exuding arrogance from every pore, prowling around the hospital in which he is a god and humiliating a colleague simply because he can. Cumberbatch is clearly having enormous fun playing the man who has it all but what is so refreshing is the surprisingly vanity free performance he puts in once Strange is injured. I’ve seen comparisons to RDJ’s Tony Stark but Stark even when he was scared and in a cave recovering from terrible injuries was still the coolest guy in that hemisphere. Cumberbatch however, isn’t afraid to show Strange as vulnerable and even at times a little pathetic as we see him grow on his journey from self-centred brat to someone willing to sacrifice everything to keep people safe. He’s also surprisingly funny. Marvel apparently hired Dan Harmon from Community to do a little last minute script doctoring and it was worth it. The film is remarkably funny in places and charmingly goofy with it. Cumberbatch has superb comic timing and isn’t afraid to allow himself to be the butt of the joke at times. And he’s no slouch in the action department either. He looks every inch the super hero in his outfit (all the stuff with the cloak of levitation is just plain adorable) and there is a moment in the New York Sanctum where he gets a proper soaring super hero entrance that made me say “Wow” out loud. He flat out kicks ass.
Cumberbatch has fantastic chemistry with Benedict Wong (two Benedicts in a picture – what are the odds on that?) Wong is a drill sergeant slash librarian and amusingly stern with it. His dealings with Strange are a real highlight of the film. Cumberbatch also has delightful chemistry with Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. The Goddess Swinton has always been gloriously ethereal and otherworldly and never more so than in this role. While there has been much commentary on the appropriateness of her casting it was nevertheless nice to see a woman in the mentor role that would so typically be filled by a man. Swinton elevates what is essentially a “and now I will tell you the plot” role into something grander and far more beautiful. She’s stern and terrifying and yet somehow very human. She even manages to make sci-fi babble sound like a Shakespearean sonnet. My favourite scene in the entire film is a quiet, heartfelt scene between her and Strange as they watch the snow fall together.
The rest of the astoundingly impressive cast fares less well. Rachel McAdams is very likeable as Christine but it’s the sort of thankless girlfriend role that just requires her to be there whenever Strange needs her and squeak a lot. If her name wasn’t prominently featured throughout on Strange’s watch you’d probably forget it. McAdams pulls off the comedy bits of business she is given with aplomb and is clearly very game. But in a world of Misty Knight and Jessica Jones I demand better from my female leads Marvel.
As a massive fannibal it’s thrilling to see Mads Mikkelsen starring in such a high profile film but he is criminally wasted here. He looks fantastic and has real presence but his part is tragically underwritten. Villain wise he’s effectively a more spiritual re-do of Lee Pace’s Ronan from Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel’s villain problem continues unabated. You would think they would have realised by now that Loki’s enduring popularity doesn’t purely stem from the highly attractive actor playing him but the fact that he was written so well. By contrast Kaecilius seems like an afterthought. A terrible waste of such a fine actor.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is also rather underutilised as Mordo although he brings a real sense of gravitas to every role. He skirts slightly around the periphery of the action. Again it seemed a bit of a waste of an extraordinary actor. But… well you might want to stick around for the post credit scenes (of which there are two – one mid credits and one at the end, both setting up interesting things for the future).
Acting aside the film looks extraordinary. Under Scott Derrickson’s skilful direction Doctor Strange looks like nothing else in the MCU right now. The visuals are Inception meets M.C Esher meets the worst nightmare you ever had. People fight standing on ceilings and vertically on walls. Astral projections battle to the death flying through people as they do. One nightmarish sequence of Strange being grabbed by multiple hands is very Dali meets Dante and will have you swearing off cheese before bedtime for quite some time. Visually Doctor Strange is simply stunning. Derrickson and his co-writers C. Robert Cargill & Jon Spaihts also deserve credit for breaking Doctor Strange away from the 3rd act Marvel formula of having everyone FIGHT while the CGI goes crazy. OK so there’s still plenty of CGI but Strange wins the day through cleverness, selflessness and sacrifice without resorting to violence which is so in keeping with the tone of the comics. It was a refreshing change.
Special mention should also be made of Michael Giacchino’s stirring score. Marvel films have, until now, been a little weak in the score department. Giacchino’s is the first I would want to listen to again.
Overall Strange is a superior origin story with astonishing visuals which feels like a pleasingly new direction for the MCU anchored by a killer performance by Benedict Cumberbatch which deserves to make him an even bigger star than he is already. The place card at the end of the credits read “Doctor Strange will return”. I for one can’t wait.