Marvel Studios deliver their most enjoyable film in years with this inventive, colourful treat.
Over the past few years, Marvel Studios have established themselves as undisputed kings of the cultural zeitgeist, releasing films with unfathomably broad appeal and an enormous quantity of water-cooler/meme-friendly moments. If we assume that this is their intention in producing each of their films, then Doctor Strange is indicative that mainstream cinema audiences are about to become extremely fond of kaleidoscopes and… ummm… marijuana.
Doctor Strange is something of a return to form for Marvel Studios, who have rapidly descended into formula and cliché with colourless duds Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War. Strange is much closer in spirit to their zany 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy, but substitutes that film’s rich cast of characters (something Strange does lack) with surprisingly inventive action sequences and some of the year’s most stunning visual treats.
Strange stars Benedict Cumberbatch, sporting a goatee and unconvincing American accent, as the eponymous physician who seeks spiritual reawakening after his hands are mangled in a car crash. His journey takes him to The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and a league of sorcerer-ninjas who protect the world from evil transdimensional forces. The plot is essentially that of Kung-Fu Panda, and diverges an absurd amount from previous Marvel Cinematic Universe entries (no bad thing, mind you), but it allows the film to- in its second act- turn the flare up to 11 and amaze the audience with its bag of tricks. Strange enters a prolonged hallucination that, were it not for The Jungle Book, would make the film an immediate frontrunner for the Visual Effects Oscar. Most impressively, the action is far less derivative of Christopher Nolan’s Inception than the film’s marketing campaign would suggest (folding cityscapes and zero-gravity chases are only briefly used, and are used superbly). The characters’ use of both space and time as literal weapons is often quite ingenious, and Strange’s final showdown with his principle foe is arguably the wittiest ever seen in a Marvel film.
To a character who could have been insufferable, Cumberbatch brings just the right amount of arrogance and of charisma: Strange is something of an East Coast Tony Stark. His relationship with Rachel McAdams’ Dr. Palmer, though explored only briefly, is reasonably convincing (though the great Michael Stuhlbarg is tragically wasted in a tiny role as another surgical colleague). Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor are successful in lending some weight to the nonsense mythology, and Mads Mikkelsen’s dull villain is used sparingly enough to make no real negative impact.
Abandoning the simple, silly trifle of the worst of its Marvel siblings, Doctor Strange is a sizeably more engaging project that- one imagines- could benefit from repeat viewings. It would be untrue to say that director Scott Derrickson leaves a significant mark on the screen, but he has clearly established a strong and effective collaborative relationship with Marvel overlord Kevin Feige who, if we’re being honest, is the most important voice on these films. Doctor Strange is messy, but focused; overambitious, but enormously enjoyable. It’s the sort of comic-book adventure Marvel used to make, before the dark and drab days of Civil War. Let’s hope they stay on track (and with 2017 delivering new Guardians, Spider-Man and Thor instalments, we have a good feeling they will).