IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 115 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Dr. Steven Strange is an arrogant, egotistical, world-revered surgeon whose life is dramatically changed when a car crash, an incident he could have avoided if he wasn’t looking at his phone, leaves him with his hands terribly mangled. He tries everything to fix them but with no success. Then he pays a visit to a person whom he once turned down for an operation because he felt he couldn’t save him, but who now seems totally recovered. He tells him that his healing was because he visited a place in Kathmandu called Kamar-Taj where they can repair nerve damage. Strange sets off to find it, and is not only introduced to the Sanctorums – mystical fortresses which protect against external threats from other planes of existence – but also finds himself being trained in this secret world of magic and alternate dimensions by the Ancient One….
Throughout the running time of Doctor Strange, a constant battle seems to be taking place between a hugely generic [albeit with considerable borrowings from The Matrix] Marvel origin story, and a really ambitious, mind-bending tale full of weird concepts and imagery more likely to happen during an LSD trip. In the end, the former wins, as I suppose it should do, though I do think that a bit more effort could have been spent on that side of things in some aspects, and Marvel’s determination to add humour no matter what actually doesn’t really work with this particular production and feels very forced. However, it’s still easily the best Marvel movie in some time, though it’s also one which shows how limited many of them are conceptually and in their displays of super powers and action scenes. And – hurray! – it’s one that doesn’t actually require you to have seen any of the previous films, which is a major flaw of the series. There’s one reference to the Avengers around the middle, and a reference to a major plotline that’s gradually being built up by the franchise, and that’s it – or rather that’s all I could spot. I wouldn’t be surprised if there things I didn’t pick up on, but Marvel actually being subtle for once is very refreshing.
An eye-popping opening sets the scene very well, as, inside what seems like an Oriental temple, the obviously villainous Kaecilius and his aides kill someone, then steal a few pages from a book before being pursued by the Ancient One, a chase which leads them outside to….the streets of London, and then goes totally nuts as – with more than a nod to similar though not as crazy sequences devised by Christopher Nolan and the Wachowskis – the ensuring fight occurs while buildings and streets are moving all over the place and the environment becomes an ever changing jigsaw puzzle. It’s fabulous stuff even if the CGI isn’t always that convincing, though as the movie progressed I wondered if it really needed this scene, and if it would have been better if we’d gradually discovered the film’s world along with its hero rather than being thrown into it immediately. Anyway, we now switch to Steven Strange, and he’s not the most likeable guy, which is refreshing, though he’s also rather similar to Tony Stark and there are times in the film when it’s obvious that Benedict Cumberbatch, even though he’s made for this role of another arrogant genius, has partly modelled his performance on the one by Robert Downey Jr.
The ‘full of himself’ doctor only chooses operations which are challenging and is rude to colleagues including occasional lover Christine Palmer who is obviously in love with him. In fact he doesn’t seem to like people at all, a great little touch having him just half-hug the wife of a patient he’s saved and not even look at her while he’s doing so. He seems to get more joy from a draw full of watches. Anyway, he soon suffers a car crash and Cumberbatch is quite brilliant in scenes showing Strange’s pain and self-loathing following the event. Strange goes off to Kathmandu, and for a few minutes struggles to accept the mystical world that he is introduced to, trying desperately to reduce it down to logic and science….before the Ancient One rips his astral form out of him and he, and we, embark on an astonishingly trippy, genuinely psychedelic few minutes which may really make you wonder if someone’s spiked your drink as Strange falls through various parts of the ‘multi-verse’ and even into one of his own eyes. I love stuff like this, and I’ve seen many similar sequences, but this is one of the best, and kudos to Kevin Feige and the other Marvel decision makers – people who tend to be quite restrictive generally in what they allow – for including it, even if the comics contain this kind of stuff too.
The screenplay by Jon Spaihts [whose involvement in a script isn’t normally a sign of quality], C. Robert Cargill and the director Scott Derrickson then has to give us a huge amount of exposition telling us of this amazing new world we are now in, but does it with some economy, while Strange learns to develop his own magical abilities and handle magical artefacts which includes using sling rings to open wormholes for travel, and sliding into a mirror dimension where the external surroundings can be manipulated in all kinds of crazy ways without any real damage being done to anyone or anything. He also picks up a living red cloak along the way. There’s the expected training montages which allow for some funny moments between Strange, the Ancient One and another magical defender of the world called Mordo, though this is really only one of two places where the comedy works. There’s also an interesting astral projection battle between Strange and a bad guy [Scott Adkins, who gets to show off some of his martial arts skills] which scares Christine as things seem to move by themselves, and the mixture of excitement, fear and humour is pitched just right. Elsewhere though, it often just seems unnecessary and out of place [even if I do admit that I chuckled at times], and this is coming from someone who tends to prefer his comic book movies light rather than heavy. What worked in The Avengers and Guardians Of The Galaxy doesn’t work for everything else, and a feeling of smarminess makes itself known. Considering that – to the best of my knowledge – Marvel’s comics tended to not go for laughs nearly as much, it really does sometimes feel that Feige and co. don’t always have total faith in what they’re making, even though that can’t bethe case at all.
Oh well, never mind, things soon resolve themselves into a series of magical martial arts fights in often changing surroundings [and with sometimes rather fuzzy greenscreen], with the odd rushed trip to hospital happening here and there. It’s all extremely fast paced, though it feels like some scenes between Steven and Christine have been cut. Watching our hero become a better person in the midst of all his chasing and fighting is gratifying, though of course the climax, even with the addition of some quite ‘out there’ imagery, is just a variation on your usual Marvel one while – to be honest – you’ll probably be able to predict most of the story beats really early on. Of course this can be said to be part of the fun of these films, though Marvel still have trouble with the villainous side of things, Kaecillius in this one continuing this disappointing tradition despite the best efforts of the always good Mads Mikklesen. Wasn’t it the great critic Roger Ebert who said that a film was only as good as its villain?
As with many modern filmmakers, Derrickson uses too many close-ups during some of the action, but overall does his best to balance the almost disparate elements of the picture and seems really at ease with this material. Cumberbatch is perfect for this role and Tilda Swinton, lumbered with much of the exposition but delivering it with just a slight glint in the eye, is so good as the Ancient One that I forgave the stupidity of changing both the sex and the race of the character. The best quiet moment of the film is a conversation in the rain between the two that is full of both warmth and sadness – and, in a word – humanity, quite an achievement considering some of the ideas and visuals elsewhere. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character Mordo, whose race has been changed [he was originally from Transylvania – I’m not a comic book nut but if I was, details like this would annoy me considerably] is sadly rather one-dimensional. Michael Giacchino’s score is good enough, and gives as a reasonable theme for Strange, but he seems to recycle some of his Star Trek work and I’ve wondered for some time if this ever-busy composer should slow a down a bit. Its flaws often tending to be flaws quite common to Marvel’s films, Doctor Strange is still quite an experience and does seem to make an effort to show the viewer some new stuff for a change while still providing what we’ve come to expect. It also opens up the Marvel Universe dramatically. Let’s just hope that the franchise takes advantage of this.