Three Phases and fourteen films in, the MCU still grapples with its trickiest foe… The origin story.
That’s not to say that Doctor Strange, its director Scott Derrickson and its charismatic lead Benedict Cumberbatch don’t do the job with aplomb, but while the film raises the bar for the comic book movie genre in many ways it feels frustratingly confined in others.
In tackling Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme (first mentioned to the delight of fans in a throwaway line in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier) on film, Marvel Studios have once again proven their faith in their characters and the comprehensive nature of the Marvel Universe on paper. It’s a bold and very deliberate widening of a sandbox that was already spilling way beyond the parameters of the traditional superhero movie.
As such, the film not only faces the challenge of establishing a new hero, but a discrete and complex mythology that still needs to blend seamlessly into the parameters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that audiences know and love.
Fortunately, in terms of world building some of the foundations have already been laid. Thor (2011) convinced us that magic is simply a science that we comprehend about as well as your typical cocker spaniel understands the Internet, and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) proved audiences’ willingness to venture into new and uncharted territory under the banner of the good ship Marvel.
The film therefore, sits right slap in the middle between the familiar and the… *sigh* strange.
Cumberbatch gives an unsurprisingly stalwart turn as the brilliant neurosurgeon turned neophyte sorcerer. His early scenes showcase the actors natural charisma, inflected with an arrogance that lends satisfaction to his humbling and the start of the hero’s journey. Watching Strange at the operating table is like watching Tony Stark in his lab or Steve Rogers on the battlefield; the simple gratification of watching a master at work. When a car crash robs Strange of the hands that earned him fame and fortune we are treated to an acting masterclass as the character goes from rock bottom to self-discovery.
Comparisons to Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark are inevitable and while a cynic might say that Strange is being groomed to take Tony’s place in the MCU, Stephen Strange was always the rock star of the Marvel Universe; brilliant, sexy, charming, compelling, arrogant, flawed and vulnerable. I dread to think what this character could have been in the hands of a lesser actor. As it stands this is just another pitch-perfect Marvel casting coup.
Speaking of perfect casting; most fans were left stroking their chins in happy anticipation when chameleonic actress Tilda Swinton was cast as The Ancient One. For all the merry Hell that was raised about Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin, few could deny the intrigue of the race and gender defiant casting.
Swinton imbues the ancient role with a perfect blend of ageless wisdom and childlike wonder; the unwavering confidence laced with perpetual self-admonition that seems to afflict many martial arts masters and religious leaders.
The supporting cast are good but the material unilaterally prevents them for being as great as they could and should be.
Celebrated Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen gives a solid but undercooked performance as the films potentially fascinating but ultimately short-changed villain Kaecilius. Likewise the infinitely charismatic Chiwetel Ejiofor does his best with an ultimately thankless role as Karl “More From Him In The Sequel” Mordo. Benedict Wong’s characteristic deadpan delivery makes for a satisfyingly stoic Wong but again there’s a sense throughout that the character’s finest hours on film are ahead of him. We were tickled pink when Rachel McAdams was cast as Christine Palmer (The Night Nurse That Isn’t Rosario Dawson), and she ranks amongst the better ‘love interests’ in the MCU. Her chemistry with Cumberbatch is undeniable and when her compassion is tested to its limits by Strange’s dickery we are treated to some of her finest and most understated acting prowess.
As good as the cast are they can’t hope to compete with the film’s true star, its mind-bending visuals. Finding popularity amongst the psychotropically inclined young minds of the 1960s the Doctor Strange comics have always been characterised by their trippy visuals. Those who’ve waited decades to see the psychedelia of the Sorcerer Supreme’s multiverse-hopping antics on the big screen will not walk away disappointed as the film presents some of the most jaw-dropping visual effects artistry of the decade. It’s easy to become blase about visual effects in this day and age and so its refreshing when a film can deliver on genuine spectacle that actively drives the narrative.
However, for or all its talk of expansion (expansion of the mind, expansion of the multiverse etc.) the film’s primary frustration is its sense of constraint. Every time it hints at something truly fascinating it seems to remember that it needs to be a superhero origin story and snaps itself back into the Iron Man mould.
That said, there’s more than enough ground being broken in visual and mythological terms to make this entry more than worthy of the MCU canon. As the bizarre and the cosmic continue to co-exist ever more harmoniously alongside the street level skirmishes of Luke Cage and Daredevil, Doctor Strange will no doubt continue to be an important pin in the ever-expanding road map of the MCU.