Bolstered by a charismatic cast, a witty script that never forgets its humanity, and mind-bending visual effects, Doctor Strange is a superior addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Ever since the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off in earnest with Iron Man in 2008, the studio has gone from strength to strength with each successive offering. That is not to say that every film are on par with one another – both Thor films and the first Captain America come to mind – but even at their lowest points, the MCU has been head and shoulders above most new superhero offerings.
This unprecedented streak of success has given rise to the notion that Marvel, with president Kevin Feige at the helm of things, can do no wrong. It has also allowed the studio to take greater risks, first with Guardians of the Galaxy and later with Ant-Man. Doctor Strange is one such gamble.
Directed by Scott Derrickson, with a screenplay by him, Jon Spaights, and C. Robert Cargill, Doctor Strange also boasts of the most talented casts ever rounded up for a Marvel movie. The choice of Derrickson is a particularly inspired one: the director has previously worked only on low-budget horror movies like Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose – movies that while being modest successes weren’t big critical hits. And yet, when handed the much larger sandbox of the MCU, Derrickson brings his A-game, thanks to his understanding of the mystic world and magical realms.
Without going into spoilers, the story is pretty much like any superhero origin story. Ultra-successful surgeon in New York City gets too cocky and gets into an extremely dumb accident in his Lamborghini Huracan supercar. He loses the use of his precious hands as a result and then tries every remedy modern science can think of, to no avail. Until he learns of a mystical source of healing in the Himalayas and, in one final act of desperation, travels to Kathmandu. This is where Dr. Stephen Strange meets The Ancient One, and embarks on a journey of learning into the world of mantras and sorcery.
If you can already read the parallels between Doctor Strange and Iron Man, it is because they’re there. Just as Robert Downey Jr. came to embody the character of genius scientist Tony Stark, Benedict Cumberbatch makes Dr. Strange his own. The British actor already has experience playing a string of brilliant geniuses, from Stephen Hawking to Julian Assange to Alan Turing to yes, Sherlock Holmes, and here, he knocks it out of the park. What could have been an insufferable know-it-all in the hands of any other actor imaginable, becomes a lost and wounded character with Cumberbatch’s portrayal. Someone, with all his learning and eccentricity, to be pitied, not laughed at. It is easy to see Doctor Strange being the hand (no pun intended) that holds all the strings of the MCU Phase III together, just as Stark did so far.
The rest of the cast is equally spectacular. There has been complaints about whitewashing with The Ancient One being portrayed by a white woman, but Tilda Swinton is Tilda fricking Swinton every time, and she doesn’t disappoint, as usual. How the marvel people managed to rope her in into a superhero movie is anybody’s guess, but the movie is richer for it. Chwietel Ejielfor is great, bringing gravitas and shades of gray as Strange’s sidekick. British Asian actor Benedict Wong serves as the comic foil to Strange, and their back and forth is one of the movie’s highlights. Rachel McAdams, as Strange’s love interest, also gives a fine performance, and isn’t given a backseat here, something which Marvel haven’t handled too well in the past.
Unfortunately, the villains of the MCU has been criticized for being uninteresting and under-written and that, again, is the case here, to some degree. Danish actor Mads Mikkelssen is properly scary and also has a well-thought out reason for his villainy, but he could do with some polishing. Loki is still the gold standard for marvel villains and that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, what with the Taika Waititi-directed Thor: Ragnarok around the corner.
But, by far, the biggest talking (and selling) point of Doctor Strange is its visual splendour. You might’ve seen a glimpse of it in the trailers, but I’m happy to report that they’ve saved the biggest surprises for the movie itself. It is like Inception meets M.C. Escher meets The Matrix meets Donnie Darko, and you really have to experience it in the biggest movie theatre near you for the full experience. This is also one of the very few times where 3D actually enhances the experience rather than detracting from it. Buildings and entire worlds twist and turn inside out in a dizzying kaleidoscope, making every superhero superbrawl before it seem like child’s play in comparison.
Excellent as the Marvel movies are, there has been many complaints about their music being utterly forgettable. There are many reasons for it, mostly stemming from a desire to play it safe, and the plague that is the use of temp music, as explained by this brilliant video from Every Frame a Painting.
This time round, thanks to the inclusion of maestro Michael Giacchino, Doctor Strange is the first Marvel movie with great music to accompany its lavish visuals.
Marvel’s Doctor Strange may not reach the lofty standards set by Iron Man, The Avengers, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but it is still a hell of a mind-bending trip. Watch it for the most trippy and hallucinogenic action ever in a superhero movie, and the great performances from a stellar cast.