Director(s): Scott Derrickson
Writer(s): Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Region of Origin: US
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1, 1.90:1 (IMAX scenes)
Digital, Color, 115 mins
Synopsis: A former neurosurgeon embarks on a journey of healing only to be drawn into the world of the mystic arts. (Source)
The Avengers have fought otherworldly threats all around the globe, Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy have taken us to the ends of space, and now Doctor Strange shows us a new side to the Marvel Cinematic Universe – alternate realities and the worlds that lie beyond our very perception of reality. It’s a brave, bold visual feast that takes us down the rabbit hole, but never forgets the attention to character that we’ve come to expect from the brand. It also brings with it a newfound kind of ingenuity. Director Scott Derrickson makes sure the film lives up to its name, delivering a psychedelic blockbuster that channels mirror universes, astral projection, MC Escher-esque action sequences, and mind-bending vistas that pay homage to the seminal works of comic legend Steve Ditko. I can honestly say, there are wild, bizarre things in here that I’ve never seen before, and it’s that commitment to creativity that makes Marvel’s latest a welcome addition, literally soaring beyond its constraints and leaving us begging for more.
When we first meet Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), he’s an esteemed neurosurgeon at the top of his game. His unparalleled skill comes with a cost, however – he’s arrogant, a bit brash and very shrewd of the patients he deems worthy of his time. That all ends one night, when a freak accident causes Strange to drive his car off a cliff, rendering his hands useless, and driving the once brilliant surgeon into a spiraling pit of despair. After tons of closed doors and colleagues who’ve deemed his case impossible, he uses his last funds on a plane ticket to Kamar-Taj, Nepal. There, he finds a sect of sorcerers lead by a woman simply known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) – their mastery over the mystic arts and the spirit could hold the key to Strange’s recovery. As he studies under the Ancient One, however, an old pupil of hers named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) reappears. He hopes to conjure up a forbidden power in exchange for eternal life, and at the cost of reality as we know it. This forces Strange to realize that the power he’s been given holds great responsibility. As his powers grow, he eventually has to choose between going back to a way of life he once knew, or defending it.
What makes Strange’s origin story so satisfying, is that it’s basically the story of a selfish, self-centered man who realizes the world is much bigger than him. In many ways its about an awakening, turning the character’s selfish thirst for thrills and his fear of inadequacy into a brand of heroism that feels earned. It’s the simplest of stories at the outset, and nothing we haven’t seen before, but when mixed with the film’s contemplation of time and mortality, equates to an adventure with slightly more weight to it. By focusing on such grounded ideas, Derrickson never loses his emotional tether, allowing Strange’s journey to the end of his ego to manifest itself both thematically and metaphysically. As the plot navigates multiple dimensions, possibilities and probabilities, the film’s philosophical and moral complexities remain just as satisfying as its mind-bending spectacle.
Speaking of the film’s visuals, they’re totally unhinged and worth the price of admission alone, delivering insane action sequences which smash through the bounds of physical possibility with unabashed glee. No two battles are the same, with Strange and his colleagues defending reality as we know it through environments that shape shift with clockwork complexity. By comparison, the way this film ignores the laws of physics makes every other fantasy film feel safe and unremarkably quaint, bending martial arts with magically conjured weapons and sentient objects to aid its characters in fascinating ways. It’s all a testament to the psychedelic world that Derrickson has built, with set pieces and battles which easily rank amongst the best that Marvel has ever done. In all honesty, I’m still trying to process much of the film’s sorcery and the original visuals – a feat in today’s saturated superhero climate and the genre’s, at times oppressive sameness. In the best way, Derrickson’s commitment to the bizarre makes the film feel unmoored from its very foundations and liberated from its peers, going full blast into hardcore fantasy mode with a ferocious vitality and ingenuity.
The performances are like the icing on top, adding depth to characters who feel authentic and well-rounded. As Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly casted. The film centers on his ability to balance being self-absorbed yet charming, and its a fine line that few could replicate. It also makes the film rewarding, to see how he changes throughout, slowly realizing the responsibility of his new powers and how much he can do with them. As the Ancient One, Tilda Swinton brings a sense of gravitas and power to the role, balancing hidden layers which become more apparent as the film progresses. As one of her most trusted, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Karl Mordo is a nice contrast to Strange. Confident in his powers and motivated by a burning conviction, his arc sits nicely beside Strange’s and converges in a way that makes the character more interesting than his printed counterpart. Through Marvel has been criticized for its weak villains, Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is not one of them. Mikkelsen has so much charisma, and even through he’s doing horribly dark things, you believe that he doesn’t view himself as a villain. If there’s a weak spot, it’s Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer, and it’s not McAdams’ fault. McAdams brings her all to the role and is a welcome addition, but her character just doesn’t have much to do – she’s a love interest that falls into Strange’s world and helps out with her medical expertise, but doesn’t really have her own arc.
In a lot of ways, Doctor Strange’s achievements feels like a culmination of what Marvel’s done in the past, and where they’re heading in the future. It takes the origin story template and finds ways to make it feel new, working well as a stand alone while still tying into the larger scheme of things. At a time when superhero films are starting to all feel and look the same, Derrickson’s latest is a rich feast that pushes the ideas of what we expect in the genre (at least visually) and adds another colorfully vibrant reality to an already dense roster of heroes.