At the start of the year, when the LAMBcast did their episode on Most Anticipated films, I sent in a recording saying that Doctor Strange was the film I was looking forward to most in 2016, mainly due to the excellent cast assembled and the potential that the character creates for the MCU. Throughout the year, I have always said that Doctor Strange is my most anticipated film, but I did have a bit of trepidation, partly due to how bad some of the other superhero films this year have been, but also due to Marvel having too good a track record, at some point they’re bound to make a genuinely bad film, even the worst films they’ve made so far have only been okay (see Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World). However, this is not that time, whilst it is more on the lower end of quality for the MCU, Doctor Strange is still a very entertaining film which, in some ways, represents the best of the MCU.
The film concerns Doctor Stephen Strange, one of the best neurosurgeons on the planet, although one who’s incredibly arrogant, who, after having the nerves in his hands destroyed in a car crash, spends all of the money he’s earned trying to repair them. After almost exhausting his money, he finds out about Kamar-Taj, a secret compound in Kathmandu, Nepal, which has the power to heal his hands through magic. After his scepticism is destroyed he gets taught by the head of Kamar-Taj, a sorcerer known as the Ancient One, along with her main pupil Mordo, in the mystical arts. At the same time, a former follower of the Ancient One, Kaecillius, steals knowledge from the Kamar-Taj library to bring about the rise of Dormammu, a being from the Dark Dimension aiming to wipe out time. Now this film does follow the traditional structure of an origin story but this is one of the rare cases where that type of structure is needed. Since there hasn’t been anything like this in the MCU before, the audience needed an introduction to these elements, such as astral projections, the mirror dimensions, the mystical sanctums all over the world and the multiverse. This opens up a wide variety of prospects for future films in the MCU but we needed to be introduced to them first. The film isn’t too bogged down in exposition though. There is a great sense of fun and wonder throughout the film, putting you in the eyes of Strange as we are introduced to all of these mystical elements of the MCU and his fascination feeds us and as more of these elements are introduced it creates some very intriguing plot threads for the future of the MCU, along with a climax that hasn’t really been done in a superhero film, which I won’t spoil here. That being said, there are a few problems with the plot. Once again, the villain’s plot is a generic destroy-the-world plan, whilst there is some difference in that Kaecillius wants to save the world rather than destroy it through ending time, the overall conclusions are still the same, although elements of how Kaecillius’ plot overlaps with the actions of the Ancient One are interesting, creating some interesting shades of grey for the characters. This though leads into one of the biggest issues of the film, the whitewashing of the Ancient One. In the comics, the character has traditionally been depicted as an Asian man, but here the character is played by Tilda Swinton, obviously causing some controversy. Whilst there are attempts to lampshade it and highlight how stereotypical the traditional incarnation of the Ancient One is, there are still problematic elements of the White Saviour, not enough to ruin the film, but they are present nonetheless.
In terms of performances, Benedict Cumberbatch is spot on casting as Strange. As shown through Sherlock, Cumberbatch can play the insufferable genius brilliant and he continues that trend here, he also shows how hard Strange works, his initial difficulties with magic and how he is willing to break the rules to do good. This also leads into a great performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, mainly relating to how seriously Mordo takes the rules and his respect and eventual disillusionment with the Ancient One, the character arc being brilliantly sold by Ejiofor’s body language. Tilda Swinton, despite the issues surrounding her casting, makes for a great Ancient One, giving off this otherworldly nature that fits the character, brilliantly showing the power the character has and bringing in some interesting moral quandries with the character. Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecillius meanwhile, whilst not given a terribly interesting character, is still able to bring across his brilliant mix of charm, humour and menace to make Kaecillius interesting where the script lets him down. However, there are two performances that just feel wasted in the film and don’t really fit. Firstly, we have Rachel McAdams who is given no real character to work with. I understand her character in theory, a link to the non-magical world for Strange and helping to show his character growth, and McAdams gives a very strong performance, but there is no character development for her and the character comes across as shoehorned in. The biggest case of shoehorning though comes with Michael Stuhlbarg (who is becoming one of my favourite character actors) as Nicodemus West who could have been cut out of the film entirely and nothing of value would have been lost, which is a shame as it wastes the talents of a brilliant actor.
The best aspects of Doctor Strange though come through the technical aspects. The score for the film is as of high a quality as you would expect from Michael Giacchino, even though it sounds very similar to Bear McCreary’s music for Constantine. The costume design is excellent, making all the costume decisions from the comic work on the big screen and even providing some justification for them, notably the Cloak of Levitation, both it giving Strange the ability to fly and it being a more competent fighter than Strange in his first big action scene (acting a bit like the carpet in Aladdin). The action scenes and visual effects though are where the film shines. The effects used to create the magic are excellent, particularly Kaecillius’ magic and how it looks like his weapons are forged from the air. This also extends to the mirror dimension and the overall presentation of the mystical realm, drawing on Jack Kirby’s designs to create some really unique and out-there scenery. The way the buildings are presented in the action scenes is also a highlight, the magic used allowing buildings to bend in on themselves and completely shift their structure in every possible way whilst still retaining their mass, making the biggest danger that of being crushed to death by the shifting buildings. This, combined with the use of time, especially a scene where the fight is taking place in traditional time but the environment around them is going backwards in time, leading to people being trapped in structures as they are being un-destroyed, creates some of the most unique action scenes of the year, certainly the most unique in a MCU film.
Overall, whilst I would put Doctor Strange on the lower end of my ranking of the MCU films, it is still a very entertaining film which opens up some great new possibilities for the MCU, with a brilliant performance by Benedict Cumberbatch and some of the best visuals that have been seen in any comic book film.
My Rating: 4/5