Many who know me might suggest I was always going to give this movie an easy ride. Doctor Strange has been one of my most beloved characters since I was first introduced to him sometime in the early 1970s. Let’s face it, I’m an easy mark for a movie featuring anything to do with Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts, right!?
But, as excited as I’ve been about seeing the good Doctor onscreen, I was always going to be this movie’s worst enemy, sitting in the dark of the theatre daring it to take a wrong step with the Sorcerer Supreme, challenging it to weigh up against forty years of expectation. Doctor Strange has lived and breathed in my imagination for decades, so my warning to director Scott Derrickson and the Marvel team might have best been summed up by Yeats: Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Thankfully, I needn’t have worried, Doctor Strange delivers as faithful a translation of Stan Lee & Steve Ditko’s creation as a fan could ever wish for, and embellishes it with thoughtful meditations that give this version of the character some important textures.
The thrust of the plot follows that of the comics, and sees talented but arrogant neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange lose the use of his hands in an accident but gain a new life as he travels to the mystical Kamar-Taj to study the teachings of The Ancient One.
As Strange learns to use his newfound powers he comes into conflict with one of The Ancient One’s ex-students and uncovers a threat to the very existence of our reality.
Ultimately what makes Doctor Strange work is that beyond the far-out visuals and imaginative sparkle, Derrickson and the Marvel team have crafted a remarkably human story. Director, script and cast combine to give us a set of characters we care for and the storytelling is gifted with many grace notes of humour and small, human moments. Benedict Cumberbatch shines (sometimes literally) as he enters the Marvel Cinematic Universe, breathing a fully formed life into Doctor Stephen Strange even before the event that takes him on his spiritual journey.
Likewise, both Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor are magnificent as The Ancient One and Karl Mordo respectively, both actors doing a lot of heavy lifting to fill in their unscripted humanity. Likewise, out of necessity of script mechanics, Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, fills in a lot of blanks through sheer will of performance. I can only hope she is given more to do in the sequel, because here she teeters dangerously on the edge of being wasted, and McAdams deserves far better than that. Benedict Wong is superb value too, as a version of Wong thankfully and necessarily much developed from the early comics.
The one actor given short shrift is Mads Mikkelsen, which also highlights the film’s one unfortunate weak point. With so much screen time given to introducing Strange and his supporting cast of characters, we’re never allowed to creep beneath the skin of Mikkelsen’s villainous Kaecilius. This is a charge often levelled at Marvel villains of course, and unfortunately Doctor Strange isn’t going to buck that trend. Thankfully, this is balanced out by the long game developed for Ejiofor’s Mordo, and if you want the full effect of this you should most definitely stay in your seat until the very end of the credits for the vital scene which will no doubt kick off important events for the sequel. Also of note is the final title card, which promises that: Doctor Strange will return.
For a megalithic blockbuster, Doctor Strange has also emerged as a rather personal movie. Director Derrickson’s well documented faith and spiritualism both shine through and inform the film, adding fascinating and thoughtful layers to the story that needs to function for the franchise. The plot is playful with any number of ideologies and both studio and audiences should be happy that such an intelligent, contemplative fit was found for the character.
This thoughtfulness spills through into the climax of the film, which veers beautifully away from the usual CGI slam-fest (though it involves plenty of CGI) to bring about a truly unusual (oh go on then… downright Strange) resolution, true to the character and true to the notions of ego and selflessness at the heart of the mysticism which propels the film, care of Derrickson (and scriptwriters John Spaihts and C. Robert Cargil).
Of course, the real spiritual heart of Doctor Strange in the comics lies in the astonishing visuals envisioned by co-creator, Steve Ditko, and it’s from here the film truly dazzles. In this age of CGI bloat and fix-it-in-post visual effects, it’s increasingly rare to walk out from a movie feeling you’ve seen something wondrous and fresh, and Doctor Strange delivers both feelings in bucketfuls: from travels through glorious LSD landscapes of the psychedelic multiverse to breathtaking battles across ever-expanding M.C. Escher cityscapes, the film is a treat for the senses.
Those senses include your hearing, as Michael Giacchino (composer of wonderful scores for films such as Pixar’s The Incredibles and the recent Star Trek reboot – as well as, allegedly, Marvel’s forthcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming) lavishes the film with one of the studio’s most effective scores, including a Doctor Strange theme (all harpsichord, Hammond organ, sitars and jingle-jangle guitar) that you’re sure to be humming as you leave the theatre.
They say you should be careful what you wish for, but as an almost lifelong fan of the good Doctor, I could not have hoped for a more thrilling, magical and human translation of the story that’s played out in my psyche for so long.
Buy the ticket, take the ride, you’ll be glad you joined Marvel and Doctor Strange for this trip.