"Be careful which path you travel now Strange, stronger men than you have lost their way."
It is genuinely interesting to wonder what will happen if the MCU ever makes a bad film. That is not to say their track record has been perfect but understand that when I say bad I don’t simply mean disappointing, formulaic or below average, I mean a movie with no redeeming qualities and a complete lack of competent filmmaking. In fact it’s almost pointless to even ask this question as the MCU machinery is now so tightly wound that even in the face of a colossal disaster Marvel would likely win back all the goodwill they needed within their next two or three films. In fact even that notion is pointless for the time being because ‘Doctor Strange’ is just as great as we’ve come to expect.
Having once been the most renowned surgeon in the world Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) finds himself at rock bottom following a debilitating accident that leaves his hands mangled and unable to perform his world class operations. Seeking a cure for his predicament he stumbles across a mystical being known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who introduces him to a whole new dimension of mystic arts and dark forces.
In the face of so many painstakingly formulaic and pandering superhero movies that was have witnessed in 2016 (it’s okay guys, we’ve almost made it through now) I was hoping that the nonstop parade could at least end with something a little more refreshing and unique, and ‘Doctor Strange’ most certainly delivered on that front. While the basic premise and structure of the film follows the usual pattern that the MCU has adopted for most of its origin stories by now (I guess the whole non-linear origin technique was perfected in ‘Batman Begins’ essentially rendering it as an idiotic and shallow attempt to replicate the success of a far greater film, and if you don’t believe me then I advise you re-watch ‘Man of Steel’), Marvel manage to throw in a few unique sensibilities that distinguish it from the crowd.
Much of that is down to the vision of director Scott Derrickson. In all honesty I was quite worried given that Derrickson’s filmography consists of a few serviceable at best horror movies as well as the truly atrocious remake of ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’. But in ‘Doctor Strange’ his creative talent and eye for the surreal is given a real platform from which to shine. On a visual level ‘Doctor Strange’ is an eye popping extravaganza that needs to be experienced on the big screen as it is a true spectacle in every sense of the word, the most cinematic entry in the MCU since James Gunn’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’.
But the importance of Derrickson is far greater than merely throwing the film over to the visual effects artists. The way he composes and orchestrates each shot only further heightens the sense of awe and wonder, as well as the fact that he finds inventive ways to ground his effects heavy sequences within some aspect of the normal world, only further emphasising the sheer strangeness of the other dimensions but giving them a sense of weight as well. This is particularly noticeable during the movies action sequences, which are all creative and inventive on an entirely new level. Derrickson avoids simply repurposing familiar techniques in the midst of trippy visuals, he continually employs more subtle and interesting ways to convey a sense of conflict, tension and excitement with each new scene.
Despite this though the film still has an air of familiarity about it. While those expecting a completely experimental take on the genre will probably be disappointed this approach is able to give the film a sense of structure and consistency, meaning that our transition from the all too real moment when Strange’s entire career lies in ruins to the interdimensional chases less jarring than they could otherwise have been, therefore the film as a whole has a pleasingly natural flow that moves along at the pace we’ve become accustomed to from Marvel by now. While it would be nice to see the studio take more of a risk regarding this property their reassuring and competent hands make for an entertaining ride as well. The supporting cast that includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton and Mads Mikkelson are (very unsurprisingly) are all engaging, memorable and convincing within their roles, if not somewhat under characterised. Though I do appreciate the effort put into giving each of them a distinct ark a little more detail may not have hurt.
In many ways the film as a whole can be summarised by analysing its titular character. Though Stephen Strange shares elements of other Marvel protagonists he still feels like a distinct character in his own right. Less eccentric than Tony Stark, edgier than Steve Roger and more sure of himself than Bruce Banner, Benedict Cumberbatch is able to bring forth a great sense of dry wit combined with a well-paced and rewarding transition from arrogant surgeon to defender of the astral plane. It’s immensely pleasing to see Cumberbatch moving into new territory and exhibiting more charisma and confidence than his previous roles have allowed, but one that is never above changing and developing for the sake of emotional resonance. With attempts to bring the character of Strange to the big screen dating back to the 1980s a number of actors have been considered for the role, but now it is truly difficult to imagine anyone else but Cumberbatch sporting that high collared cape.
A visually stunning and utterly unique entry into the MCU, anchored by a terrific performance from Cumberbatch in the title role.