After suffering a debilitating condition following from a near-fatal car crash, renowned surgeon Doctor Stephen Strange travels to Kamar-Taj, Kathmandu in search of a means to regain the use of his hands. While there he meets The Ancient One and her disciples who teach him the mystic arts and open a doorway to the near-unimaginable.
The second film of the MCU’s third cinematic phase and the fourteenth Marvel Studio movie in total, Doctor Strange opens up a realm of possibilities within the mystical and supernatural in the same way Guardians of the Galaxy were the audience’s gateway to the cosmic elements. Director Scott Derrickson is no stranger to the supernatural as he brings his Sinister expertise here with a much larger box of tricks than he’s handled before. Bringing one of the more, “out there” creations of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko to life is no mean feat, and the filmmakers manage to craft an origin story that ticks all the boxes while providing fresh and exciting bells and whistles to amaze and astonish both veterans and more casual audience goers.
My biggest concern going in was that Marvel were trying to mould Benedict Cumberbatch’s sorcerer into a carbon copy replacement for Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, goatee and all. The story of a super-affluent genius having to overcome a physical disability, who must then battle a similarly equipped nemesis is soooo 2008, but here Derrickson and co. imbue the movie with its own unique infusion of darkness, peculiarity and humour that make Strange stand apart from Iron Man and his peers
Holding the fort in Kamar-Taj are Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Baron Mordo and Benedict Wong’s er… Wong. Their dynamic as masters of the ancient arts adds weight to the ridiculousness of the premise. Swinton portrays the Ancient One with an imposing serenity where she’s part Yoda, part Morpheus, but all three appear as though they’re about to start reciting Shakespeare at a moment’s notice.
It is often the case in Marvel Studios features that the weakest character threads are that of the love interest and the antagonist but this time around at least, Rachel McAdams delivers more than we’ve seen from Gwyneth Paltrow or Nathalie Portman. Unfortunately, Mads Mikkelsen is side-lined as the villainous Kaecilius. A couple expository lines of backstory and a solitary tear are all he’s afforded, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a sequel sees an upward trajectory in well-handled baddies.
If you thought the Quantum Realm sequence from Ant-Man was pretty neat or that Inception featured some hair raising visuals, then you’re going to be spoilt rotten with the special effects and overall design of Doctor Strange. Trippy, hallucinogenic and close to overwhelming, the invigorating optical feats mimic Steve Ditko’s comic representations and go further into the kaleidoscopic, Escher-like and beyond.
Having been a fan of Michael Giacchino’s since his exceptional score for Pixar’s The Incredibles it amazes me that this is his first live action foray into superhero features. There’s a deft use of far-eastern instruments, synths and harpsichord to accompany the visual feast with a faux prog’ish soundscape that offers far more texture than one would usually expect from MCU fayre. At times his score is reminiscent of Holst’s The Planets by way of Craig Armstrong’s motifs for The Incredible Hulk (2008) as both the bombastic and incidental pieces accentuate the heightened sense of the extraordinary throughout. Sadly, the main theme follows a thread that is too reminiscent to Giacchino’s own work on the Star Trek reboot’quels, which makes for a jarring experience and robs Doctor Strange of a truly memorable, hummable anthem.
2017 brings us Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2, Spider-Man: Homecoming (set in New York… Strange’s home turf) and Thor: Ragnarok. With Doctor Strange set to appear in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, don’t be surprised if we see Cumberbatch popping up in more MCU phase 3 features over the coming years.
If you’re not a fan of the Marvel Studios formula, then there’s little here to persuade you otherwise. However, if you’re willing to go along for the ride and can handle the basic origin story, the underwritten villain and unabashed setup for future instalments then I can’t recommend Doctor Strange highly enough. Of all the MCU movies to date, this is the one to splash out for an IMAX ticket for as the ocular spectacular is an absolute marvel to behold.
Doctor Strange launches in the UK 25th October and in the US 4th November
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