We’re now well and truly into phase three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the latest effort from Marvel Studios’ introducing us to the character of Doctor Strange and the mystic side of the universe. Strange is the story of a Neurosurgeon who has lost purpose in his life after an accident makes him unable to work, who discovers that there’s more to life than meets the eye. Benedict Cumberbatch looked perfect for the role in the early images that were released, and the trailers promised a wild ride if nothing else. The question is though – is this wild ride deep enough to be interesting, or is it merely a case of style over substance?
This doesn’t feel like a typical Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. Much like 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, if you removed the couple of references to the Avengers, this could easily feel like it belonged in its own world and would make perfect sense. The tie ins almost feel like an afterthought – an excuse to connect them together – and the movie is better off for it. Magic hasn’t been delved into all that much in the MCU yet, and if they had bogged it down too much with connecting ‘Strange’ to the rest of the series it would have hindered the vision of the movie. Because it is essentially establishing a new world (or side of the world) it does mean that the story carries a fair bit of world building and exposition, which can slow the movie down a bit, but everything is interesting enough that you don’t mind following Stephen Strange on his journey. You want to spend more time in the story, which is a massive plus for what is essentially an action movie.
The first thing you’ll notice about this movie is the visuals. The trailers gave us a glimpse as to what to expect, but thankfully it still had plenty up its sleeve. When the movie kicks into high gear these effects are working overtime, creating a crazy visual palette that is almost overwhelming at times, but awe inspiring. The psychedelic nature of the comics are not lost in translation, making Doctor Strange stand out among more typical comic book movies. Even the costumes, which are often contrasted by the everyday sights of New York, pop on screen and are in many cases more interesting than their other superhero counterparts.
Kaecilius is one of the better villains to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Now keep in mind the bar is set rather low, but there’s a bit more meat to him. He won’t be memorable like Heath Ledger’s Joker mind you, but he has a purpose and you can understand why he is acting the way he is, which is a nice change of pace from some of the one note villains that have come and gone in previous movies. It helps that Mads Mikkelsen does a good job of playing him as understated yet intimidating, and there’s enough depth to keep him interesting as he does bad guy things.
There’s not a poor performance amongst the cast. Benedict Cumberbatch looked perfect when we saw the first images of him in the costume, and that doesn’t change once you see him in action. He captures the smug arrogance of the character early on, finely walking the line between lovable and hateable, and the progression of his character arc is well balanced, showing steps rather than one big revelation that magically changes everything.
Chiwetel Ejiofor serves a great guiding figure, providing Strange with somebody to bounce off and learn from. He has a certain charisma about him that we’ve seen in other movies (Serenity comes to mind) where when he has something to say you can’t help but listen. Rachel McAdams brought more out of her character than I was expecting given the type of role she was playing, and Benedict Wong as…well Wong, provided a nice mix of comic relief and a sturdy force to keep Strange in line. Tilda Swan did well as ‘The Ancient One’, although there was nothing really about the character that necessitated the departure from the comic lore. It doesn’t harm the movie though, she carries her role with the strength and calmness that it requires, and her story provides some interesting building blocks for the rest of the narrative.
The action varies from good to great, but it could have easily all been great. When the direction allows the action to breathe and be expansive, it is incredible. The Hong Kong scene in particular is masterfully executed, and the Inception-esque scenes are just damn fun to watch. But a lot of the action, especially in the first half of the movie, is too tightly filmed, meaning the camera struggles to keep up and show everything that’s going on. I feel the choices were made to ‘hide’ the effects somewhat, but it makes some scenes a little disorientating to follow. Which is a shame, because we see enough great action to make these missed opportunities a real shame.
I had high hopes for Doctor Strange going in, and thankfully it delivered. It is a fascinating movie to watch and feels like it has more depth than many of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies that have come before it. It is at its best when it embraces the wild mystic side of the character, playing with effects and visuals that make the story stand out. Every performance delivers and carries enough humour to keep you smiling without undermining the story it wants to tell. To me, Doctor Strange has a case for the best superhero movie of the year, if primarily because it’s willing to spread its cape beyond the normal bounds of the genre.