Length: 115 mins
Writers: John Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C Robert Cargill
Dir.: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachael McAdams, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen
Spoiler Warning: while everything discussed here is in the trailers, if you don’t want to know anything about the movie, don’t read this review!
Bean-addict Clumber-latch plays Doctor Strange; a brilliant medical practitioner and complete arsehole who is struck with a disability that leads him to push away those closest to him and retreat into his own misery. No… wait… that’s House isn’t it? Don’t know why I got them confused… Well, to be honest, the two characters are so similar that it makes no odds. Rather than a dodgy leg, though, our good doctor is involved in a car accident (which was totally his fault incidentally) that crushes both his hands, effectively ending his career as a top-flight neurosurgeon. Seeking to heal his perpetually shaking fingers, Strange sets out on a quest that eventually leads him to Kathmandu. There he meets The Ancient One – an immortal reality-bending wizard – who inducts Strange into a mystic order of sorcerers charged with defending the Earth from inter-dimensional interlopers. Like you do.
Despite the fantastical and – let’s be honest – daft source material, the story is actually relatively straightforward and doesn’t deviate much from the the standard superhero movie framework. The fact that it is an origin movie gives the film a feeling of set-up over substance – but that’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable. Considering that Marvel is introducing legit magic into the MCU (Thor and all that Asgardian stuff aside), you can forgive them for taking the time to introduce everything. I will say, though, that it is one of the most unsubtle movies I’ve seen in sometime. There are scenes that exist purely to tell the audience that the thing they are introducing will be important later – it’s hard to go into details without spoiling anything, but suffice it to say that there is some significant signposting going on. The slightly dodgy pacing exacerbates this; the movie was clearly edited for time and certain scenes end a bit abruptly and some build up to a pay-off that never happens. While this isn’t a massive issue (I have seen movies with considerably more pacing issues) it does mean that certain themes and ideas get a bit lost in the mix.
Performance-wise, every one does well – as indeed you might expect from a cast made up of some of the best actors on the planet. Ejiofor and McAdams are fine, but don’t get much to do as Strange’s quasi-mentor/rival and the presumably court-mandated love interest respectively. Mads Mikkelsen is criminally underused as the nefarious Kaecilius – a genuine shame given that he is so good at playing villains. And Tilda Swinton is also in the movie. While she gives as good a performance as she always does, there isn’t a particular stand-out moment in the movie that justifies her being there – I certainly don’t think her casting was worth the controversy it provoked… but more on that in a minute. Cumberbumberbatch is great as the eponymous hero, but I wasn’t joking with my comparison before. He is essentially playing House (right down to the undefined ‘American’ accent) with a bit of Tony Stark thrown in. I actually found this quite distracting at times – particularly when he is expressing his disbelief in ‘chakras, energy or the power of prayer’ – but he gives an earnest performance and sells it well. It’s just a shame that the character couldn’t be a bit more unique.
Going back to Tilda Swinton, you may remember that there was no small amount of uproar when she was cast as the Ancient One. Many felt – given the character in the comic was originally depicted as an old Asian man – that this was yet another example of Hollywood white-washing, i.e. where traditionally ‘ethnic’ characters are played by white actors. This specific controversy and the issue of whitewashing as a whole are beyond the scope of this review, but as I mentioned before, there doesn’t seem to be a reason why Marvel chose Swinton for the role over literally any other actor. I can definitely see an argument for avoiding cliches and racial stereotyping, but that doesn’t quite cut it as an explanation. It should be noted that one of the movie’s screen-writer, C Robert Cargill, suggested back in April that Marvel changed the character from a Tibetan man to a white woman in order to avoid pissing off the Chinese – an accusation that Marvel vigorously denied. Now that I’ve seen the movie, that suggestion seems far more likely to me, but that is pure speculation.
One particularly exceptional element of the movie is it’s visuals, so much so that I found myself wishing I’d gone to an IMAX screening – which is an extremely rare feeling for me. The kaleidoscopic actions scenes with the New York skyline unraveling and folding in on itself were especially impressive – although keeping track of the characters in theses scenes could sometimes prove challenging. According to a friend of mine who works in the industry, Marvel were extremely worried that this visual design would prove to be a bit much for audiences and kept changing their minds about the direction they should go. As a result, the look of the film can be a bit inconsistent – jumping from the reality-bending scenes to generic looking, over-saturated fantasy settings, which is a shame. However, the movie definitely establishes it’s own distinct style and feel – hopefully Marvel will have a bit more faith in it in future.
So, cards on the table: Doctor Strange is a deeply silly movie – but then again, all comic book movies are when you get right down to it. The difference between this and… oh, I don’t know… anything DC has put out in the last 10 years, is that the movie acknowledges how daft it is and owns it, wearing its ridiculousness on its sleeve like a badge of honour. It’s that quality – the feeling that the audience is in on the joke – that makes this and other Marvel movies so endearing and so enjoyable. While I would say that Doctor Strange isn’t particularly ground-breaking or subtle, it’s a lot of fun. And that’s all it needs to be.