DOCTOR STRANGE is the latest offering from the factory of slick itself, Marvel Studios. It is the story of Stephen Strange, a high-flying surgeon and general shitty guy, played by Benedict Cumberbatch (who I’ve heard is neither). He has exes, awards and pride. His hands are his prized tools (much like Cumberbatch in real life, I mean, have you seen those hands? They’re exquisite!), but after being crushed in a terrible car crash, they are left as shadows of their former selves, and not in a fun puppety way. Strange goes to the very cutting edge of medical science to try and find a way to fix them. After nearly draining his funds and undergoing several experimental procedures, he travels to Nepal, where he finds a group with the power to bend minds and reality itself.
Based on the Marvel comic of the same name, Doctor Strange is a fun romp with enjoyable characters, and a rather unimposing plot. It feels like a mixture of 2008’s Iron Man, the progenitor of this entire film franchise, and Harry Potter; a disenfranchised genius and smart arse is involved with a conscious changing event and goes to wizard school. All it needed was Paul Bettany walking up and down a train crying, “ANYTHING OFF THE TROLLEY DEARS.” (Don’t tell me you wouldn’t watch that).
As is the trend with Marvel movies, the villain is rather bland. Mads Mikkelsen does fine in the role, but isn’t given much to sink his eerie teeth into. This is a shame, because he’s great when he can sink his teeth into things. Like human flesh. Or James Bond’s testes. There is also another ‘big bad’ which I won’t spoil, but I can’t help but think that this villain could have really been something special, with a little more scope and creativity. Done well, he could have been a great threat to the MCU.
But that’s Marvel; kinda shit with villains. Apart from Loki, Ultron or… actually, Zimo from Civil War was pretty good. In addition, Rachel McAdams wasn’t particularly given a lot to do either. Other than one scene in which she patches up Strange (okay… saves him from certain death with medical science… so a bit more kick ass than the usual nursing woman stereotype, but still a variation thereof), she seems rather superfluous to the plot.
The cinematography at times, was also somewhat lacklustre. Here was an opportunity to do something truly wonderful. To turn the mundane into the extraordinary, which, barring the big effects shots, it didn’t. It was still that same Marvel world outside your window, providing you live in unassuming streets in New York, West London or Hong Kong. Even the big effect shots seemed to be focused on the wrong parts of the screen. Instead of scale and awe you’re given mid-shots and close-ups. Let us get lost. But that degree of trust in an audience wouldn’t be the Marvel way.
All that being said, there are plenty of reasons to see this movie. Firstly, no matter how much they have to do, the cast give it their all. Benedict Wong is hilarious as the po-faced Wong, oozing both sternness and an untapped sense of fun. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Baron Mordo goes on a journey that you feel and empathise with as he all he holds dear comes into question. Tilda Swinton is fantastic as the Ancient One, a character that is typically an Asian man, yet Swinton reinvents this with age, youth, wisdom, playfulness, imbuing the role with a bit of Prospero and a bit of Gene Wilder’s Willie Wonka.
Even the characters that aren’t left with a lot to do, do it well. While Rachel McAdam’s character is bereft of plot, that doesn’t impinge on her performance in any way. Of course, I cannot neglect to mention Benedict Cumberbatch who not only delivers the sort of reverence this character needs in order to have any degree of heft, but the joy needed for the audience to attach themselves to. He’s having a blast and doing it well. To quote a well-known film producer, “Whatta guy!”
I must also mention the moments where the visual spectacle flourishes. Through homages to Steve Ditko’s fantastic out-to-lunch artwork from the original run of Doctor Strange, as well as developments on techniques used in other films, from Ant-Man through to Inception, when this film is allowed to indulge in visual spectacle it is mind-bogglingly spectacular. While it does feel like entering another mode, something which I feel could have been done more seamlessly or woven throughout the film, when the effects are ramped up, they are like no other film I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s like watching an Escher painting on film… with budget…. and without David Bowie’s bulge being in the way.
All in all, this is another impressive string to Marvel’s bow. Marvel Studio is doing incredibly well, and long may it last… but I can’t help but feel peeved. These are well made movies (for the most part), all with narrative beats that are hit, all with emotions that are played, all fantastic for shovelling down popcorn, but I can’t hide the feeling that this could have been so much more than slick.
This could have been batshit in a wonderful way. This could have referenced ancient spirituality, or occultism in art and in science. It could have borrowed from Alan Moore, Grant Morrison or Aleister Crowley. It could have taken risks. No, not all risk-taking ventures are great (look at Zack Snyder’s ‘edgy’ mass murderer formerly known as Batman), but I have to say that Marvel needs to start taking more risks than the titles it chooses. But who knows, maybe that’s just not how to make movies the Marvel way.