In just one jaw-dropping scene, Doctor Strange breathes new life into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The sequence is an acid trip through a series of mind-twisting alternate dimensions, a fall through a fever dream where you're bombarded by surreal and unsettling imagery. By the end of it, Stephen Strange believes there's magic in the universe, and so will you.
Writer and director Scott Dickerson has crafted a dense and fascinating world of ancient magic couched in the modern day, but he's coy with the nitty gritty details of it. You'll want to know how magic can be conjured just by twiddling fingers and waving hands, what all the powerful relics in the background are, and the history of the Sanctums where all the action takes place, but the movie glosses over all of this. Nevertheless, these questions will take root in your mind and you'll be thinking about the world of Doctor Strange long after the credits have rolled.
Stephen Strange is a surgeon that loses the ability to hold a scalpel steady when his hands are mangled in a car crash. After exhausting all the options Western science has to offer, he seeks out a spiritual cure for his ailments. From here, the movie pulls you down the rabbit hole and into a world where sorcery trumps flying supercomputers and genetically enhanced soldiers, where down can become up at the wave of a hand and a window can lead into a vast desert one second and the heart of a thrashing sea the next. It's a place that is bewildering and unpredictable in a way that makes you feel anything is possible.
The movie is propelled forward by exhilarating action sequences that are massive in scale and impressive in spectacle. Each set-piece is a bluster of orange sparks erupting from conjurings, well choreographed hand-to-hand combat, and disorienting leaps and bounds. The environment itself becomes a weapon for the sorcerers as buildings are twisted, bent, and folded in on themselves. Imagine if Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon played out in an MC Escher landscape inside a kaleidoscope. Floors become ceilings, ceilings become walls, and before you know it, the building is upside down, inside out, and the wrong way round. Frankly, it's as exhausting as it is thrilling. At one point the movie upends the traditional flow of a big battle sequence and the result is a triumph of CGI and editing trickery. It's one of the best set pieces I've seen in a long time.
While visual effects and spectacle are undoubtedly the strongest part of Doctor Strange, the movie is also filled with well-realised characters that have depth and pathos. Anchoring the cast is Benedict Cumberbatch, who inhabits the role of Stephen Strange as naturally as Robert Downey Jr. took to Tony Stark in Iron Man. From this point on, it'll be impossible to see anyone other than Cumberbatch as Strange.
After three seasons of Sherlock, Cumberbatch is in his element as an uppity genius driven by his ego, but he also brings some emotional variety to the role. In Kamar-Taj, home to mystics and sorcerers, his place within the world is deconstructed by The Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton. The truths he has built his life on are revealed as limited and limiting. The Ancient One tears down his place within the world and sets him adrift in search of a new one. This gives Cumberbatch the opportunity to play the desperate doctor, the know-it-all realist, the reluctant hero, and eventually, the triumphant saviour. He rises to the challenge and puts on a stellar performance, wandering American accent aside.
As The Ancient One, Swinton is Strange's guide through the realm of magic and mysticism, and there's a playful student and teacher banter between them. She's a powerful presence but also has a somber quality to her. An eerie vacancy in her eyes hints that something troubling lurks behind her piety. Swinton's character is also frequently in the thick of action sequences, where she fends off multiple attackers by using magic and reshaping the landscape around her. She is a stone-cold badass.
Mads Mikkelsen's Kaecilius is Doctor Strange's main adversary throughout the movie. While a serviceable villain, he fits into the forgettable footsoldier category alongside Ronan the Accuser from Guardians of the Galaxy and Malekith from Thor. Mikkelsen brings intensity to the role, but it feels wasted on a character with a generic backstory, cliche motivation, and very little of interest to say.
Benedict Wong and Rachel McAdams feel like they have bit parts, but make the most of them. Wong, who serves as guardian of Kamar-Taj's library, is mainly a comic foil, his stern demeanour being used as a dart board for Strange's sharp quips. Their mismatched cultural reference points are the foundation of their chemistry, and it's effective at taking the edge off the intense, topsy-turvy action sequences.
McAdams, meanwhile, plays Christine Palmer, a sort of love interest for Strange. She doesn't appear in many scenes and in the ones she does, she's either bearing the brunt of Strange's meltdowns or trying to comprehend the weird new world he exists in. Her character lacks complexity and is underused, but I felt there was some nuance to the relationship between them, even if it wasn't explored fully. There's history between Strange and Christine and, at one point, they've come to terms with the fact that they're bad for each other. And yet they're still drawn together. This never manifests in a typical Hollywood love sub-plot where guy and girl finally work through their issues and get it on. Instead, the film just presents this fractured, occasionally destructive relationship that they just can't let go of.
Doctor Strange doesn't show much narrative ambition. It sticks close to the origin formula that Marvel established in Iron Man, and given the similarities between Stark and Strange, this doesn't come as a surprise. But it's also an enchanting movie that is a reminder that superhero stories are at their best when they inspire wonder, depict larger than life characters, and realise fantastical worlds that leave our imaginations racing. At a time when DC's heroes are at their dourest and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is consumed by infighting over ideological disputes, this otherworldly adventure stands apart as spellbinding.
|Cumberbatch is an excellent Stephen Strange
|Sticks close to the Marvel formula
|Unforgettable action set-piece and trippy visual imagery
|Successfully brings magic to the MCU
|Wong and Christine are underused