By the time you’re watching stoic kung fu sorcerers chasing bad kung fu sorcerers through a labyrinth of twisting cityscapes and magical portals that lead to who knows where, you know this isn’t a normal Marvel Studios venture.
The behemoth studio behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe has developed a sprawling storyline that has had some great entries (the Captain America sequels, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy), some pretty darn solid ones (the first Captain America film, Iron Man, Thor) and some tepidly-received ones (Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World). In their effort to serialise the tentpole release, Marvel Studios has dug themselves a nice little place in cinema history for installing the “[Insert Your Franchise Here] Cinematic Universe” trend and forging a new marriage for spectacle entertainment and genre exploration. For example: instead of providing rehashed meathead brouhaha, Captain America: The Winter Soldier played like a crackerjack political thriller with keen insight on government surveillance and the true price of patriotism.
The films have their goals to meet in terms of advancing the greater story – all leading into the two-year mega-epic Avengers two-parter (in which Infinity War is only part one). But, after this summer’s spectacular Captain America: Civil War, a film that featured more superheroes and storylines than in any Marvel film to date, it’s nice to head back to the singular story – something we haven’t gotten to do since 2015’s Ant-Man.
Doctor Strange, the latest in an attempt to introduce a lesser-known Marvel character to the general public, is weird for a Marvel movie. While recent attempts have seen the studio branch out into different sects of storytelling – sci-fi comedy, political thriller, heist film – we haven’t seen a Marvel film go this deep into its own mythology. Now, the Thor films are definitely out there – using trolls, Bifröst Bridges and other magic – but Doctor Strange is the first Marvel film to really dive into this idea that there are other dimensions, worlds and creations past where our mind’s eye can see.
If Iron Man kicked us off into the MCU, Doctor Strange kicks us off into the MC-Did-You-See-That?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an arrogant, wealthy smart person, marred by a life-altering tragedy, meets someone along the way who shows them the errors of their ways and introduces to them a new path – one of selflessness, virtue and superpowers.
The similarities between Iron Man and Doctor Strange are definitely there – Tony Stark and Dr. Stephen Strange follow similar paths to enlightenment. Stark gets a magnetic device in his chest that keeps him alive and christens his Iron Man suits, while Strange, a famed surgeon, uses mystical powers to offset his languished hands, marred in an automobile accident and made useless for medical endeavour.
Mentor A was Iron Man co-star Shaun Toaub’s kindly scientist, and here director Scott Derrickson enlists Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton to play The Ancient One, a powerful being and sorceress supreme who keeps this extra dimension from piling on poor old Earth. Again, both of these films feel like the starting gunfire for new eras of this series – Iron Man started the ground war, while Doctor Strange most likely will lead the battle of the cosmos.
Both films get many of the same things right – both carry charismatic leads. Benedict Cumberbatch holds his own well in his first leading blockbuster role by instilling in Strange the kind of quirk that made Tony Stark such a fun character to follow. The supporting cast in Doctor Strange is one of Marvel’s finest – alongside Cumberbatch and Swinton, Chiwelel Ejiofor plays The Ancient One’s second fiddle, a solemn sorcerer named Karl Mordo, Rachel McAdams plays Christine Palmer, Strange’s confident and former flame, Mads Mikkelsen plays the baddie Kaecilius, a rotten sorcerer who, obviously, wants to use his magic for all the wrong reasons and Benedict Wong (The Martian) nearly steals the show as Wong, a librarian and fellow instructive sorcerer.
Per Marvel tradition, they’re flushed with riches in casting – Cumberbatch, Swinton, Ejiofor, McAdams, Mikkelsen and Wong make up the core cast of an Oscar contender, much less a Marvel movie. The studio continues its eagle eye for assembling a group, and their casts consistently elevate the material. The humour in Derrickson’s and C. Robert Cargill’s script pops, and the expository sections never drag the film down.
A change from Marvel tradition, the film here has a strong score to back its action – Oscar-winner Michael Giacchino plays with his themes – both honouring the big deal bravado music of past superhero films and dancing around with more experimental sounds that fit the narrative – a few tracks sound like something from the A.R. Rahman songbook.
Derrickson’s direction is assured. Once we finally get through all the routine character set up (by far the weakest section of the film, helped by Cumberbatch’s establishing personality but hindered by somewhat choppy writing and on-the-nose themes), he kicks it into high gear by wasting no time getting Strange to Kamar-Taj, the good-guy sorcerer’s compound. There, the film dips into the psychedelic visuals that give the film its irresistible flair.
Moments where Strange begins to unlock his psychic potential look like something out of a Pink Floyd laser light show gone wrong – we’re thrust into a multiverse of clashing colours, morphing shapes and surreal imagery. The audience’s mind is unlocked just like Strange’s. When the action sequences begin to fuse into the visual display, Derrickson provides some of the most innovative action of the decade. The film could have used an additional scene or two covering the metaphysical mayhem, but what’s there is strong. While Disney’s Jungle Book remake staged an entire VFX universe to aplomb, this film should be the visual hallmark of the year.
Where this fits into Marvel’s line of hits is somewhere towards the bottom of the top – the film, understandably, lacks the payoff and emotion of the Captain America sequels and the first Avengers film. It doesn’t quite get to the borderline-classic level of Guardians of the Galaxy. But, it is one of the best standalone titles from the studio so far – one that stretches the possibility of what we can do with our action sequences when we allow them to get down and dirty in the waters of weird and one that establishes how exact the science is that drives Marvel to continue to churn out quality work.
Some may bemoan the extended stay of the superhero. Box office and merchandise dollars indicate this is still a very viable market for studios to be in, so don’t expect the cape to be hung up anytime soon. But, with movies like Doctor Strange carrying the baton, what’s there to complain about?