Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Image via Marvel Studios
Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenwriters: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor
“Forget everything you think you know.”
This is what we are told to do leading into Doctor Strange, the latest film from Marvel Studios. To most, this won’t be a difficult prospect, as the character (who made his comics debut in 1963) is relatively unknown to the mainstream movie-going audience who are not familiar with the comics. It is a testament to the power of the Marvel brand then, that so much hype and excitement can still be generated based purely on the shared universe a character occupies. Whether this franchise-centric film landscape we currently find ourselves in is a good or bad thing is a question for another time, but for now the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to forge ahead.
The film acts as an origin story for the titular character, Doctor Stephen Strange, chronicling his transformation from cocky neurosurgeon, to bitter recluse, to cynical disbeliever, to devoted trainee in the mystic arts, and finally to sorcerer supreme. Such is the way of the Marvel origin story, but Strange’s transformation plays out all too quickly. This world of sorcery is a new frontier for the Marvel universe, opening up endless creative opportunities, yet the film still sticks to tried and true methods of previous films. While Doctor Strange is altering reality as we understand it, Marvel is sticking to what it knows.
Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Image via Marvel Studios
With this rapid transformation, Strange’s personality never feels properly established. He is the cocky and brash surgeon, the wise-cracking student and also the anti-violence sorcerer, which makes it feel like bits and pieces have been drawn from other Marvel characters. Benedict Cumberbatch is more than capable in the role of Doctor Strange, but the writing leaves something to be desired in establishing a singular character without continually swinging from one personality to another.
The supporting cast also feels underdeveloped. Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One doesn’t feel ethereal, Rachel McAdams is entirely devoid of any substantial material as Strange’s link to his previous life, and Michael Stuhlbarg is wasted as a rival surgeon. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong as Karl Mordo and Wong respectively are solid in their performances and can hopefully build on what has been established in future films.
Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). Image via Marvel Studios
A persistent problem in Marvel films is the development of the villain. Kaecilius, played by Mads Mikkelsen, lacks a significant back story, and as such, the connections between the motivation for his actions, why, and how he plans to fulfil them are loose at best. They do however culminate in a satisfying climactic set piece which demonstrates some of the magical abilities on show which will no doubt have much larger implications in films to come (as per usual, stick around to the end for both post-credits scenes).
The visuals effects are the constant high point of the film. The creative opportunities presented by dealing with altered realities and parallel dimensions are taken advantage of throughout the film. The opening action sequence in particular sets the stage for what is possible within this new realm of magic. The visual manifestation of spells and other magical abilities is consistently well done, however the directing can unfortunately be inconsistent at times, detracting from the on screen magic.
The humour used throughout the film is rather hit and miss, a persistent issue throughout all Marvel films. There are genuinely funny moments, one brief interchange between Doctor Strange and Kaecilius stands out. Yet at other times, a serious moment will be followed by a cheap visual gag, robbing the moment of any time to linger.
Doctor Strange and Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). Image via Marvel Studios
The score is another aspect asking for the boundaries to be pushed. No Marvel film or character has a truly iconic or memorable score or theme, and Doctor Strange continues that trend. One piece of music within the score which tries something different, an ode to 1970’s progressive rock (complete with harpsichord, atmospheric guitar and keyboard solo), is unfortunately relegated to the second half of the end credits. The piece suits the atmospheric and trippy themes and visuals of the film, and the inclusion of Pink Floyd track Interstellar Overdrive within the film hints at a desire to push things further in that direction, yet this style only peaks its head out within an otherwise good, but safe, score.
Good, but safe, is ultimately the overall feeling towards Doctor Strange. With 14 films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the audience deserves something truly fresh and original, and while Doctor Strange is certainly an enjoyable experience and a good entry into the franchise, it is ultimately let down by the potential for what it could have been. Marvel are good at what they do, but could be great at what they don’t. The future is promising, just don’t expect things to get too strange too soon.
3 out of 5 stars.