Here we are with the 14th film in the ever expanding and ultra-successful MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). This entry has been touted to be a turning point in the series, just as Thor (2011) introduced aliens and the nine realms; Doctor Strange introduces the Marvel multiverse – a key narrative trope of the comics which essentially means there are infinite versions of worlds and characters just ripe for the picking.
This long awaited entry tells the story of the brilliant but arrogant Doctor Stephen Strange (a well-cast Benedict Cumberbatch), who after a car accident suffers severe nerve damage in his hands. He goes on a journey to heal himself which leads to a temple in Nepal, where he meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), learns of the mystic arts and sorcery, and is put on a path to save the day from a being that threatens the entire planet.
Now it’s overall a fine film which is very entertaining, very funny in some scenes and definitely worth a watch – but it’s by no means one of the best in the series. It’s great that Marvel have taken what some would call a risk and mixed things up by introducing sorcery and the multiverse into the MCU, and it is essential that they add new elements in order for the series to stay fresh and develop, by utilising decades of characters and stories that have yet to make it to the silver screen. But it just seems like I have seen this all before.
In a way this film feels like Thor, as we have a new protagonist and origin story, get to see a new reality through their eyes, and they are backed up by a mostly brief yet memorable supporting cast of friendly warriors. And like Thor you don’t really need prior knowledge of the previous films in the MCU to enjoy this one as it takes you on the journey at a comfortable pace.
One issue I have is the score by Michael Giacchino, which at points sounds way too similar to his recent Star Trek soundtracks, and at times this is distracting. Like many Marvel movies it is hard to pinpoint a direct theme true to the character (ala John Williams’ Superman theme) and I would advise you all watch the ‘The Marvel Symphonic Universe’ video by ‘Every Frame a Painting’ on YouTube.
But I think the biggest issue I have with Doctor Strange is one evident in most MCU movies. They spend a good chunk of the film sowing seeds for the sequels, and they waste a perfectly good actor playing a villain that mostly takes a back seat and isn’t much of a genuine threat (Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) is still the worst culprit).
However ex-student of The Ancient One, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), has a plan which makes more sense than the villain’s plan in Captain America: Civil War (2016), and his motives even resonate with Doctor Strange at points.
On the whole it seems that Marvel are expanding their universe with this film, but are also playing it safe and adhering to a tried and tested formula. We have the MCU staples of referencing other films, characters and events, the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, and both mid-credits and post-credits teasers; one of which was a big surprise to me and the audience, and both have done their jobs well by building my anticipation for future films that I was going to see anyway. Stop it Marvel, you already have my money, you don’t need to keep doing these things (but I’m glad you do)!
Nevertheless, this film has a lot of positives and I don’t want my review score to put you off seeing it especially if you are a Marvel fan like me – I was just expecting a bit more. But on the positive side the pace is great for an origin story, it has a good structure and development, and the actors and actresses are well suited to their roles, even if Rachel McAdams is typecast as Strange’s love interest Christine Palmer.
On the mystical side the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor is brilliant as student Mordo, and one honourable mention is to the mostly CGI Cloak of Levitation which is a character within itself. Tilde Swinton’s The Ancient One is by far the stand out character of the film and delivers a balance of wisdom, fierceness and joy which I would have liked to have seen more of on screen. The character has a great introduction and she is perfectly cast in this gender swapped role.
This is also one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen and some of the kaleidoscopic Inception-esque fight and chase scenes are just incredible to watch, and even vertigo inducing. I would recommend seeing this one in 3D and on the biggest screen you can find.
All in all it’s a cool and very enjoyable film, but for me it felt safely familiar. It’s hard for me to guess what the film makers could have delved further into and delivered without stretching the film out, and as it should the ending leaves the audience pining for more: more sorcery, more dimensions and more Benedict Cumberbatch. This is the first of many films featuring Doctor Strange and I for one am looking forward to the inevitable sequel and his appearance in Avengers: Infinity War (2018), which this film has helps further set up. But then again all of the MCU films are connected and some are pondering what will happen once Infinity War is over?
Well this film kind of answers that as it establishes the possibility of infinite versions of characters in other worlds, meaning that when Robert Downey Jr and co.’s contracts become too expensive or they decide to kill a key character off, they can hire someone else to fill their shoes. And I have been saying for a long time that The Avengers, in whatever roster, will appear on screen with the X-Men one day, and this is the film that has explained how this will happen.
Overall Verdict: It’s a great origin story and a welcome expansion to the MCU. It hits a lot of beats right yet feels familiar, but is a fun romp and one of the most visceral films you will see this decade.
Reviewer: George Elcombe