There really is nothing that Marvel Studios can’t sell now. Every time Kevin Feige and his team embark on adapting a supposedly ‘risky’ property from decades-worth of back catalog comics, not only do they always prove a financial and critical success for the studio, but consistently do so with aplomb and a stylistic pallet that always manages to somehow feel fresh. A talking raccoon and sentient tree monster? Ridiculous. But Guardians of The Galaxy was one of the best received chapters of the MCU. A shrinking man who somehow retains super strength? Preposterous! Enter Ant-Man with its cheeky wink at the heist movie genre where even a giant Thomas The Tank Engine toy can somehow be a believable threat! Now, with Doctor Strange, Marvel have taken a C-list hero who sprouts magical spells of alliteration and psychedelic colour and somehow woven it into a compelling, oddly grounded, truly unique piece of cinema, in any genre.
Doctor Strange is like nothing previously seen on screen. Whilst there’s been a lot of initial comparisons to Inception, this is a disservice to both films. Sure, Inception may have folded a building or two and messed about with gravity a little, but Doctor Strange creates incredible moving kaleidoscopes of stone and marble, ever shifting patterns of urban illusions that are stunningly impressive in their sheer ingenuity. It’s not just the MC Escher-style battle landscapes that impress, a particular sequence where Strange is propelled through the dimensions of the multiverse is frankly mind-blowing. Think Ant-Man‘s quantum realm combined with Homer Simpson’s chilli pepper hallucinations.
Despite the focus on supposed magic and mysticism, Doctor Strange still somehow feels very grounded in the existing fabric of the MCU. We are already aware of cosmic beings and the unseen things beyond our thin veil of reality, and Strange has an almost scientific approach to proceedings, much like 2011’s Thor. The Mystic Arts is about channeling existing energies from unseen sources and somehow the script weaves everything together without ever feeling far fetched. Much like Ant-Man, things are introduced with such ease that when the final climax arrives, it totally works; in any lesser film, it could have faltered and fallen into laugh-worthy hokum. Director Scott Derrickson deserves a hearty dose of kudos.
Praise is deserved too for star Benedict Cumberbatch. Within minutes it’s glaringly obvious why he was Marvel’s first choice. All the arrogance of his breakout Sherlock performance, combined with the money of Tony Stark, Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange is a charismatic A-Grade asshole that you can’t help but be charmed by. The parallels between Strange and Stark are not unintentional; both wealthy, self-centred men at the top of their respective fields, whose fall from grace sets them on a much more noble path. One embodying technology, the other, spiritualism and magic. Two heads of the same coin in fact – and both with very fetching facial hair. The similarities between Strange and Stark have led to some critics calling Doctor Strange a remake of Iron Man. This not entirely accurate, but Doctor Strange does feel somewhat of a soft reboot to the MCU as we move into the next big paradigm shift of Phase 4.
The supporting cast are also a solid bunch, with Benedict Wong’s Wong being a particular highlight. However, Marvel still haven’t quite cracked a truly interesting villain, and although Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecillius is watchable, he is still not as fleshed out as he could be. The same issue plagues Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Karl Mordo, whose welcome arc of a man losing faith in his belief system, as Strange finds his own faith, would have been stronger with more background information. Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One is aloof, all knowing and almost as casual as a good friend, and Swinton balances these elements excellently. Sadly, Rachel McAdams’s Christine Palmer comes up short and doesn’t even have any kind of story resolution at the films end.
Doctor Strange is also, unexpectedly Marvel’s funniest film to date, prompting more laughs than even Ant-Man. Cumberbatch and Derrickson manage to balance the humour and story effortlessly, and the laughs never feel intrusive, although one particular scene with an iPod was maybe just a tad too much.
Doctor Strange is a solid and surprisingly welcome addition to the ever expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe and offers plenty of laughs, combined with strong performances and, despite the occasional wobbly bit of CGI, some of the most incredible and original visual set pieces of the last decade.