By Jack Dignan
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is ever-expanding, each new film attempting to broaden out the story to new lengths. It all started with 2008's Iron Man, a simple tale of a man using his genius to survive. Over the years, we were introduced to gods, war heroes, talking trees and an abundance of different planets, and yet, with Doctor Strange, the universe expands once again. This time, it expands further than ever before, stretching the limits of our imagination and showcasing just how little we've actually explored of this oh-so-glorious universe, and it seems that Marvel undeniably have another hit on their hands.
We follow the story of the arrogant, but somewhat charming neurosurgeon, Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who thinks of himself before he thinks of others. When speeding one rainy night, Doctor Strange finds himself in a car accident, sliding off the road and getting himself seriously injured. Despite many attempts at recovery, including getting the assistance of his occasional lover and co-worker Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), nothing seems to be able to fix his injuries, and any chance of returning to his career as a neurosurgeon seems to be lost. But there is hope, and it comes in the form of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who teaches Doctor Strange a form of mystical arts that he can use to protect the greater good, and his newly acquired skills may come in handy when an old pupil of hers, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) returns, now having turned to evil.
While it does put into use the much-expected structure Marvel seem to follow with every one of their films, Doctor Strange is a welcomed breath of fresh air to the superhero genre. It combines together trippy visuals with an engaging and action packed storyline, and makes for a rather entertaining trip into the multiverse. It's full of big ideas, and all of the ideas are certainly brought to life in this fantasy epic that brings an awful lot to the table. It's not only a solid introduction to the character of Doctor Strange, but it opens up this franchise to an infinite number of possibilities in the future.
As a comic book reader, I was already well aware of who Doctor Strange is as a character, and I was most certainly a fan, and like with all of their titular heroes (and ones who are oh so deserving of their own solo movie), Marvel do him justice, and Benedict Cumberbatch proves to be the perfect choice for the role. He's arrogant, self obsessed, and, as it's pointed out to him, lacking a spine, metaphorically speaking. But he's not unlikeable. With a photographic memory and great skill as a neurosurgeon, I was happy to see the guy work, and the early hospital scenes have a fun little rhythm to them that makes watching surgery upbeat and fun.
But the real fun hasn't yet started, for things truly start to get interesting once Strange has had his accident. Seeing his downfall is both tragic and revealing, providing us with a deeper understanding of who Strange is as a character. We see him broken, creating strong empathy with him, all before his glorious return and rise into becoming the sorcerer we all know and love. There's an early moment between The Ancient One and Strange that I won't spoil, but it's a sequence that will just play with your head, and once that scene happened, I was just sold. I was ready for absolutely everything that this film was going to throw at me, and from that point on, I was just in love.
I am a lover of all things sci-fi and fantasy, and Doctor Strange is a perfect mash of both. Many movies try to portray magic, and a lot of them work, but with Doctor Strange, it doesn't feel like fun, generic fantasy magic. It feels like legitimate, believable magic. It's grounded, intense and it feels almost impactful. When someone casts a spell or releases energy, it has a sort of vibrance to it that's brought to life beyond the screen. Every spell had an impact on me as an audience member, and I got the sense that these characters were trying very hard to bring this spell to life. It wasn't just some weird finger wave and hey, here's the spell. You can see the train of thought, every spell looking thought out, and not just random colours flying everywhere.
Scott Derrickson does an absolutely astounding job in the directors seat, and when it comes to Doctor Strange, the pacing and tone are just right. It needs time to build up this story and get us invested in whats going on, as there's a lot of extremely complex things that need to be explained, but he paces everything well. Never did I think that the film was dragging, nor that it came to a certain plot point too fast. It's all timed well, and every single second of it was just gloriously entertaining. This is not only his best film to date, but also his most impressive film in terms of directorial skill. It's simply great.
The way he handles the action sequences is just extraordinary. Each one feels so different and unpredictable, full of life and intensity. They're layered and inventive, and while I won't spoil any specific details, each action set piece brings something new to the table, and not one of them let me down. It's some of the best action Marvel has ever done, simply winning that title through its sheer inventiveness, but it goes to so many further lengths as well. The inventiveness is one thing, but the thrills, excitement and vulnerability is another. Nobody felt safe, and not everybody is safe, and that isn't always the case when it comes to these sorts of movies, so that's another thing I really loved about Doctor Strange.
These action sequences are visual effects heavy, and as is this entire movie. It's full of weird and wonderful visuals that are astounding to look at, and the effects are practically flawless, ramped up and aided by a wonderful score from Michael Giacchino. The trailers show off glimpses of what this film has in store, but it never shows the best parts. The coolest, most insane aspects of this movie have been locked away, and when you see the film, you will be astonished by how unbelievably awesome they are. There is nothing out there quite like this movie, and it perfectly captures the sense of what the comics are all about. It translates to screen without flaw, and the third act in particular is something that just goes up and beyond what I expected from this movie.
This does bring me to my major flaw with the movie, and it seems to be a flaw in a lot of Marvel movies, and that is the villain. When compared to the villains of a lot of the other Marvel movies, Kaecilius isn't too bad. He's fun to watch on screen and Mads Mikkelsen, like he always does, gives an excellent performance, but there's not a lot too him. He's your run of the mill old pupil turned to evil, wanting to do something that he believes is for the greater good, when it clearly isn't. Aesthetically, he's cool to look at, but in terms of development, there isn't an awful lot going on besides "ooh look at me, I'm really evil," and it's becoming increasingly apparent in most of Marvel's movies.
To sum up, Doctor Strange's weak villain doesn't manage to get in the way of being an extremely awesome, visually trippy hit for Marvel. It simultaneously manages to expand this universe to its furthest reaches while also creating an exciting and action packed story that serves as a wonderful introduction to Benedict Cumberbatch's fan favourite character.
4 1/2 Stars