Doctor Strange, 2016
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins
A former neurosurgeon embarks on a journey of healing only to be drawn into the world of the mystic arts.
Despite the fact the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a multi-billion dollar franchise, it still seems weird that Stephen Strange has made his way to the silver screen in 2016. Not exactly one of the most popular first-string characters in Marvel cannon, Doctor Strange has had quite the journey to get here (including a rather rubbish TV movie in the late 1970s) and he’s now being played by one of the biggest actors on the planet in Benedict Cumberbatch. But, has the journey been worth it, and how does The Sorcerer Supreme stand up to previous origin stories?
Cumberbatch puts on his best American accent as he plays Doctor Stephen Strange, a very successful-but-ultra-confident neurosurgeon who is at the top of his game. He has nice cars, a nice place to live, and everything is generally coming up Milhouse for him. However, due to his over-zealous and cocky nature, he crashes his car quite spectacularly ruining his career in the process. With no surgeries working on restoring his hands to full working order, he resorts to travelling to Nepal to seek help from The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) – who does more than that. She shows him a way into various other planes of existence that exist outside of the world we know. Through his training, Strange becomes more and more skillful with The Mystic Arts and finds himself fighting alongside The Ancient One, her student Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and comedic relief Wong (Benedict Wong) against a former student-turned-to-the-dark-side Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who is summoning Dormammu from the Dark Dimension.
Doctor Strange is mostly comparable to Thor as it works around throwing normal people – in this case Stephen Strange – into a world they don’t understand. The ordinary mixing with the extraordinary, if you will. With that comes a lot of expository dialogue that, really, is utter gobbledygook and completely preposterous but is usually delivered quite well and convincingly by its actors. The first two acts of Doctor Strange are full of nothing but exposition that really bog the film down and a newcomer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or one of its cynics could turn their noses up at the silliness of it all. Those who settle in, however, will be treated to a mostly fun ride – although it’s not without its problems. It’s not as good as Thor, let’s put it that way.
The were some pointed comments made by the Internet when the first trailers came out about Cumberbatch’s American accent, but in the context of the movie it does work (he does much better than Martin Freeman in Captain America: Civil War). One wonders why they just didn’t let him do his Sherlock-English tones, but it doesn’t take you out of the movie too much. It’s never perfect and it actually holds Cumberbatch back during his more expressive moments. It’s in these scenes where Cumberbatch stops acting and turns to hamming it up and chewing every bit of scenery around him. Although it’s not exclusive, as the set dressing does seem to be the dish of the day for Doctor Strange as Ejiofor is also chomping up just as much as Cumberbatch. Swinton, bless her, is given the majority of the ridiculous dialogue, but she handles it much better than her male co-stars. She’s the star of the show here, giving a measured performance that perfectly mirrors Cumberbatch’s exacerbated output. With that said the true shining light is Benedict Wong, who pulls a Michael Peña and steals the movie from everyone.
Doctor Strange is a tale of redemption, and one that is played out quite well. Strange is an egotistical know-it-all who is only going through this intensive training for his own gains, only to learn the error of his ways. What this means is that Stephen Strange is very unlikeable at the start of the movie, which carries over into the preceding acts. He’s a jerk of the highest variety which makes it difficult to warm to him in later scenes and that doesn’t let up until the third act. And even then, it feels slightly forced. You could argue that this gives his character more layers, but he’s pretty two-dimensional at best. Highly ironic, given the trippy visual nature of the movie.
And the visuals are really where Doctor Strange shines. Outside of the expository scenes and nonsense dialogue is one of the most visually captivating films you’ll see this year. Director Scott Derrickson, best known for his horror pieces Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, shows that he is more than just a skillful maestro of scares as he cultivates this fascinating reality-bending world that will have you scanning each and every pixel on screen. His horror background mean that the detail is exquisite and his attention to them is incredibly commendable. Some might argue that the mechanics don’t work as well as they do in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but the breath-taking nature of Doctor Strange will wow and amaze. It is within your best interests to see Doctor Strange in 3D and preferably in IMAX to get the full measure of it. If it were not for these visuals, Doctor Strange would be a rather tepid affair.
These epic and stunning moments also play into the action sequences, some of which rank among the best the Marvel Cinematic Universe has put out to date. Because Derrickson is able to play around with the reality presented, he’s able to mix up the now familiar Marvel-action formula with some new twists. Why have some people punch each other, when you can do it while flipping their surroundings like they’re fighting on an ever-changing Rubix cube. It’s so hard to put into words just how great these sequences are, and they become even more fun when you start to play around with the concept of time. While much of Doctor Strange is held back by the fact its an origin story, it does mean that the inevitable sequel and future cameos will allow for the Sorcerer Supreme to play with even more tools and toys without restrictions.
One thing you would like to hope for in a future movie – should they get one – is a better villain. Unfortunately, Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is another in a long-line of bland baddies with no real purpose. What’s his plan? Something to do with summoning someone else to destroy the world or some nonsense. Or something like that. The point is, Mikkelsen is the victim of being the villain in an origin story that requires two acts to set up, which means there is no time for his character development. He’s only ever there to fight Stephen Strange, and we’re never given a solid reason as to why he’s doing what he’s doing. Once that fight is over, he’s gone until the next fight. It’s such a shame, and a real waste of someone with Mikkelsen’s skills. Dormammu is just as bad. We’re told he’s all sorts of evil, but we’re never shown. And because his plan is so underdeveloped, it’s unclear just how scary and dangerous he is.
Which brings us to the film’s biggest crime and disappointment. You’ll probably have noticed in this review that I’ve not even mentioned Rachel McAdams, who plays Strange’s work colleague and sort-of love interest Christine Palmer. The reason she has yet to be mentioned is that she doesn’t factor into Doctor Strange in the slightest. Not even a bit. You can count on one hand the amount of scenes she has, and they’re only there to further Strange’s character not her own. You’d be forgiven for forgetting she was even there. She’s given nothing to do, and you feel like she’s only in the movie to give the film a tritefully unnecessary love angle. If you removed her scenes entirely, Doctor Strange would play out exactly the same (give or take a few scenes), though if did take her out then there would only be one female character – and she’s had enough controversy surrounding her…
In terms of Doctor Strange being an origin story in a world built on various already-existing characters, it doesn’t succeed in the same way Ant-Man did, nor is it as fun and original as Guardians of the Galaxy. Ignoring its colour palette and the fact it’s clearly attached to a larger world, Doctor Strange does feel very mid-2000s. Like Daredevil, Ghost Rider and Hulk. Take out a few sly references, and it could be a singular movie not attached to the bigger picture. In some ways that’s a good thing, but the movie isn’t strong enough to support itself. Derrickson’s direction is fantastic, but his cast don’t always pull their weight and the constant exposition and hammy delivery pull everything down. Perhaps the character will be more enjoyable when he fights with The Avengers, but this is not a knockout opening round.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Luke Owen is the Deputy Editor of Flickering Myth and the co-host of The Flickering Myth Podcast and Scooperhero News. You can follow him on Twitter @ThisisLukeOwen and read his weekly feature The Week in Star Wars.