A Doctor Strange film has been in production since 1986, with the rights passing through various production companies with men such as Alex Cox, Wes Craven and David S. Goyer all at some point attached to direct. Their was Doctor Mordrid, an “Unofficial” film starring Jeffrey Combs, and at one point a strong fan desire to have Guillermo del Toro direct. Ultimately the rights came back to Marvel who have finally brought the Sorcerer Supreme to the big screen with Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister) at the helm.
Doctor Strange looks brilliant, the production budget very well spent on Matrix-esque world-warping effects, bright psychedelic sequences, and space-and-time wormhole shots that look good enough to give the Dr. Who producers a nose-bleed.
It’s a Kinda Magic
Into this world steps Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch), a supremely gifted and extremely egotistical surgeon who loses the use of his hands in a car accident. Searching the world for a cure he comes across The Ancient One (Swinton) in Nepal, and at first sceptical of her abilities begins training with her in the hope of healing his hands. He studies at her school, aided by her associates Mordo (Ejiofor) and Wong (Wong) and is introduced to the world of magic and alternative dimensions.
But a former student of The Ancient One, Kaecilius (Mikkelsen) has stolen a spell to summon the demon Dormammu from the Dark Dimension, lured by the promise of eternal life; and Strange and his new allies are Earth’s only line of defence against the Demon and his earth based acolytes.
Strange’s beginning as a surgeon and the build-up of his meeting with The Ancient One and his training are all excellent fun and the pace is kept up so nothing feels like a drag, and a middle-of-the-way fight scene with Kaecilius and his cronies in the New York Sanctum is brilliant; if the ultimate showdown with Kaecilius and Dormammu comes and goes a little quickly – the actual resolution is a fantastic idea but possibly not utilised quite as well as it could have been.
The film also avoids the over-reliance on wordy magic spells and arch-campness of some of the earlier Strange comics, and while this might potentially disappoint some of the fanbase, it at least part solves the problem of how to include a sorcerer in the realistically inclined Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), making Strange accessible to the wider cinema going public and the script does allow for some technobabble to keep faith with the hardcore fans.
The Film-makers almost pull off the trick of disguising the structure which is now very familiar after fourteen films in a franchise. Those superb city-bending visuals do a lot of the work by giving us a very different kind of fight sequence and this is very apparent at the climax where they add a lot to what is otherwise a very averagely choreographed fight sequence. In a city. Again.
The role of the love interest in Marvel films is often pointless, and at first a very good Rachel McAdams seems to be being allowed to buck the trend with an important role in Strange’s days as a surgeon. But she is almost instantly forgotten for large chunks of the remainder and when she does appear her lines could have been assigned to any number of nameless ancillary characters.
The biggest unique gripe with Doctor Strange sounds ridiculous; but it’s that it is too try-hard to be funny. The humour often actually is funny, but also too often feels forced and in a few places robs moments of their full dramatic potential. And trying to make the Cloak of Levitation a comedy character? Just no.
It’s an issue which begins to affect the Strange character himself: not every Marvel hero needs the wit of a Tony Stark or a Peter Parker.
Since the casting of Cumberbatch was announced fans have been salivating at the prospect of seeing him get his acting chops around the Sorcerer Supreme, and he doesn’t disappoint. Nailing the sense of arrogance and high intellect (when has he ever played a character like that before….) but the inherent desire for good that are inherent to the Strange character.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is fantastic as Mordo – one particular scene where the pair argue is a titanic heavyweight acting clash and his story is magnificently handled, completing one of the very best film-long set-ups I can recall – Marvel are sneakily giving you two origin stories for the price of one and if he’s handled well in future then the MCU has a very compelling new character.
Never to be outdone Tilda Swinton is also excellent (as always) as the mystic, wise but fierce Ancient One. The casting of this triptych of talent is an unqualified success and adds much weight and gravitas – and importantly believability to proceedings.
The Verdict: As an Origins movie this is arguably Marvel’s best effort yet. It isn’t as consistently high quality as Winter Solider and it lacks the endless fun of Guardians, but as to where it ranks in the grand pantheon of Marvel Studios releases is more down to personal taste. Some may find it lacks the grandeur of Avengers Assemble or Civil War, or the (then) originality and star re-making power of Iron Man; but it deserves a place in the conversation.