Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenplay: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton
Runtime: 115 Minutes
It’ll be a peculiar day when it reaches that point where the efforts of Marvel Studios ceases to impress even the least demanding of audiences and critics. To question their efforts and dedication to their craft at this point feels rather futile. That’s not to say that the Marvel formula as it stands (concerning both narrative structure and elemental details) isn’t going to fall into scrutiny. With Doctor Strange, the main criticism to be had of it is that it falls fairly easily into the stock narrative of being the ‘Origin’ movie for its titular character.
This is where most of the problems stem from with Marvel Studios’ latest instalment; while vibrant, well paced and entertaining overall, the film doesn’t really do much else to differentiate itself from similar pictures in the genre. The film follows the arc of Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in a similar fashion to that of Tony “genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist” Stark, covering his development from a ego oriented individual dedicated to logic and reason, into someone tasked with fulfilling duties he once saw to be impossible before venturing out into the world to find himself.
The metaphorical character work here is actually rather excellent, as Strange fuses his egomaniacal and reckless tendencies with reality-bending oriental powers in an effort to heal his hands, but rather finds himself instead tending to the wounds of his broken spirit and personality. There are certainly worse angles to approach concerning character building exercises, and Cumberbatch’s performance endows the character with a fabulous amount of charisma and physical dimension to keep him the most engaging presence in the film. The pace is breakneck and keeps things constantly moving, even though at times it feels like time is dilating between scenes.
Sadly, the same isn’t really to be shared of the remainder of the cast. The talented performances are certainly well judged, but beyond a specific few character beats required to give them context and purpose, they lack the same depth as Strange with certain characters coming across as placeholders for larger, more integral roles at a later date.
Tilde Swinton gets to unleash her wrath as the Ancient One, delivering much of the heavy expositional duties with such grace and pleasure that it’s kind of difficult not to just want her to keep talking regardless of purpose. Chiwetel Ejiofor does what he can with the underdeveloped sceptic Karl Mordo, although much of this appears to be holding off for his true role in the sequel. Although he comes nothing close to the perfunctory role of Rachel McAdams as Strange’s personal lynchpin and love interest Christine Palmer.
Mads Mikkelsen is fine as the villain Kaecilius, who bares an interesting design and back-story, but much of his dialogue and confrontation with Strange is relegated to a single post-battle sequence where he gets a moment to bare his soul – and for Mikkelsen to show some real emotion. Even with his vindictive worldview and design, the plan doesn’t seem all that elaborate, yet the film stretches itself out to convolute the details of his portal opening (yes, that again) master plan.
While the narrative lacks any exceptional punch, racing to get to an action-stuffed second half, what the film does hold is the most spectacular visual design work of any blockbuster this year. The costumes and sets are gorgeous to look at with a sense of comfort and age, but the design work on the films more mystical elements – from shields and portals to mirror dimensions – are beautifully intricate and physical in design.
The action sequences are intensely choreographed and creative, but it’s the settings of the supernatural brawls that really make the eyes pop. From entire cities folding and warping inside of each other to an encouragingly damage free finale in which time itself runs backwards while out characters battle in the streets, its kaleidoscopic sense of colour and vision is so impressive to behold. A montage sequence early on sees Strange disappear inside and fall into the depths of his own eye, and only continues to get weirder. Both director Scott Derrickson and resident Marvel DP Ben Davis manage to make something different out of these striking situations.
This remarkable spectacle is what makes Doctor Strange standout more than the narrative structure that it adheres too, although there are surprises along the way – especially in the films unique manner of surprisingly peaceful resolution. There’s an abundance of lightness and comedy to take from its presentation and dialogue (seemingly courtesy of Dan Harmon’s last-minute additions), and Michael Giacchino’s score is up there with the series best. If only the story and characterisation were strong enough to make it more memorable beyond the viscerally engaging experience that it is.