Doctor Strange Review
Another year, another Marvel movie. They have shirked the summer blockbuster label and are now able to pretty much release the movies whenever they want, the brand name being that strong. Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man were an experiment for the company, a foray into the unknown. These were big budget additions to the shared marvel universe featuring characters that did not have a big profile, characters like Iron Man and Thor are much more ingrained in popular culture, so it made the new properties more of a risk. That risk no longer seems to apply. Doctor Strange is another superhero from the marvel catalogue that relatively few non comic fans will be aware of, but that no longer seems to stop Marvel in being able to base a blockbuster movie on pretty much anyone they like.
Perhaps to combat the potential risk, the cast is filled with well known and respected actors that appeal to many different sectors of the cinema going community. Chief among them is Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, Star Trek: Into Darkness), subject of many ‘fandoms’ amongst the various geek communities on the web, and well known as an actor that can put bums on seats, he’s evolved from a one-note TV actor to a veritable movie star that can guarantee a certain level of attendance and exposure for any project he is appearing in. He plays the main character, Doctor Strange, and whilst he does a great job, there are a few aspects to the character and performance that personally I did not rate, more on that later. Appealing to people that respect fine actors, Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave) plays Mordo, his partner in the movie, and does excellently, giving expected gravitas to a character that is actually a lot more interesting that the main character himself. The supporting cast is filled with great actors too, featuring Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, Rachel McAdams as Doctor Palmer, and Mads Mikkelson as the main villain of the piece.
The story is set up in a way that is eerily similar in tone to the way the first Iron Man was set up. Here you have an incredibly gifted scientist, that is arrogant and particularly selfish, thrust through a terrifying ordeal and becoming a selfless, changed person. I feel that this is the main weakness of the film, it plays on existing tropes to a tee, and the film never takes a risk or goes into uncharted territory. It doesn’t ask any particularly hard questions of the audience, and really is quite a vanilla, if spectacular, story. Doctor Stephen Strange is a successful Doctor performing incredibly advanced research and medical procedures, with a perfect record and an inflated bank balance. He has a photographic memory, much like some of Benedict’s other characters, and doesn’t have any sort of goal other than becoming the best in his field, and gaining worldwide glory and recognition for his endeavours. Balancing out his ego is his friend/former lover Doctor Palmer, with whom he shares some witty dialogue, and serves as his moral compass throughout the film, helping him whenever he becomes lost. Strange goes through an ‘Incident’ and becomes an angry, self involved narcissist, vainly searching for a miracle that can let him continue with his old life. This eventually leads him to Kathmandu, to a small temple in the middle of a bustling city, where the film begins in earnest.
It’s from this point that it becomes a Marvel movie, featuring strange and peculiar characters with powers that we can’t explain. In fact, that seems to be the whole message of the film. Not being able to explain everything through science and modern medicine, but opening up your mind to possibilities beyond your realm of imagination. That is a very odd message in a world that often contains brilliant scientists and skilled soldiers saving the world, and really is at odds with a lot of what the Marvel Universe has been about, literally turning one of the worlds brightest minds in medicine to a wizard of eastern medicine. The film never explains how the knowledge to cast these variety of spells and access the various dimensions and planes of the multiverse has remained hidden from the rest of the human population, Strange seems to be completing basic spells within a few days and there really isn’t any restriction on what he can do beyond his own ability.
The other superhero’s all have explanations for their powers, years of intense training for Hawkeye and Black Widow, mutations for The Hulk and Spider-Man, scientific advancement for Iron Man and Ant-Man. So the fact that anyone can read a book and practice and learn real magic is a bit disheartening. There is a character in the film that was once a pupil of The Ancient One at this temple, and used it to heal himself and return to society. There seems to be no restriction on withholding knowledge or the pupils to the organisation, so how the powers have remained limited is a mystery. A group of disciples that can literally create weapons out of nothing and have been doing so for thousands of years should not be a secret group in the middle of Asia, there is absolutely no reason given why these powers are restricted or secret. It’s baffling that in a shared universe that goes so far to explain a lot of the plot holes and reasons to suspend our disbelief, that they didn’t explain the existence of a coven of sorceresses and guardians.
If you can get past that, then the film actually becomes quite good. It focuses on the potential invasion of Earth by one of the other multiverses, the so-called ‘Dark Dimension’ ruled by a being known as Dormammu, that seems to have immeasurable power and strength, and is far greater than anything yet encountered in the Marvel Universe, absorbing whole dimensions in his wake. He is channelling his powers through a former pupil of The Ancient One, Kaecilius, whose aim is to defeat all the various sanctums guarding the earth, opening up a rift between dimensions that will allow Dormammu to invade. The Ancient One features as the ‘wise old mentor’ of the picture, guiding Strange through his training period, and attempting to give him a purpose beyond his own ambitions.
She is intentionally a mysterious character, with many of her actions being unexplained and her motives unsaid, there are many questions left to be answered. That is fitting for a character that is supposedly more in tune with these weird powers than anyone else, and slowly unravelling her past will surely become focal point of any future entries in the series. Her other disciple, Mordo, is the antithesis to Strange. Loyal and with a strong sense of right and wrong, he is unflinchingly rigid in his interpretation of justice, which leads to the ‘buddy movie’ style chemistry between him and Strange, and sets up most of their interactions, with their differing views on how to approach the problems the world faces. Mordo believes that there is only one right way to do things and that rules should never be broken, whilst Strange believes its okay to break the rules once in a while if it gets the job done. This friction is good to watch, but it is also very obvious they are foreshadowing later ‘Civil War’ style confrontations between the two characters. Mordo is of course a villain in the comic books, so there will be no surprise at the route the future films take. I highly doubt they will choose to make Strange the bad guy.
Strange eventually faces off against the bad guy in a big climactic battle in Hong Kong, worthy of any recent superhero skirmish. Much of the film revolves around whether or not the wizards should alter ‘natural law’, i.e. time and space. There are many relics that come into play, holding various powers that can be manipulated should the user have the right spell. Not only this, but relics have something of a consciousness, with Strange’s ‘cape of levitation’ not only choosing him, but saving him a couple of times in the process, leading to some comic moments. The use of time is a great plot point, and allows the Marvel movies to access the sort of head scratching manipulations of the world that it has not yet been able to, allowing for some great scenes and solutions to issues that none of the other heroes would have been able to overcome.
The real star of the piece though, are the visual effects. Marvel has absolutely conquered the computer generated realm, and this film should serve as a reference point for digital effects in a modern movie. There are several psychedelic and trippy sequences evoking Strange’s exploration of a strange new realm beyond his previous understanding, and they simply look amazing. The effects of his ghostlike astral form, the various dimensions and spells, and of course the various big battle scenes are extremely well done. Some of the sorcerers have the ability to bend time and reality, folding buildings on top of each other and creating strange M.C Escher style realities, and it all works perfectly. This may finally be the year that these sort of effects stop sticking out like a sore thumb, the lines between what is real and what isn’t are truly being blurred, a coincidental but awesome comparison to the subject of the movie. Practical effects have always been limited in what they can do by expense but they have always looked better, that era is now seemingly coming to an end.
The film also displays all the characteristics of any Marvel movie yet. It has all the wit, the little jokes between characters, the small running gags and comic relief that make it a fun romp. It also has Stan Lee of course, in another one of his cameos, look out for that. Doctor Strange will go down as one of the best examples of a safe Marvel movie, it takes no real risks in the plot or characterisation, but the execution has been pulled off so well that it is still an extremely enjoyable movie worthy of any superhero fans time. I look forward to Strange’s inclusion in the wider Marvel Universe, but there is a danger the films could get lost in themselves. They are now entering the geekier parts of comic book territory, with strangely named characters and unexplainable lore and backstory, but considering what Marvel have been able to achieve so far, I have high hopes for the future. Doctor Strange was not an experiment, but a furthering of the Marvel formula. But what a formula it has become.