Get your old Hendrix records out, kids; Marvel has gone psychedelic with the mad and mystic ‘Doctor Strange’, which marks a gigantic expansion of what’s already been established in the Marvel Cinematic Universe whilst being a singularly great movie in and of itself.
That’s no small task, but ‘Doctor Strange’ really is something to behold.
For those unaware or not too familiar with the character, Doctor Strange is a 1960’s character from the silver age created by reclusive comics legend Steve Ditko, who is also know for co-creating Spider-Man.
They’ve been trying to make a movie out of Doctor Strange for years, at different points deeming it ‘unfilmable’ and even when they did film it that one time it was unspeakably embarrassing, but the character has always remained a constant staple of Marvel Comics and so movie studios have never stopped trying. And so here we are in 2016 with the thing finally having been made.
Benedict Cumberbatch has the lead as Stephen Strange, a brilliant yet arrogant neurosurgeon who severely damages the nerve endings in his hands in a career-ending car accident. After struggling with the help of traditional medical science to aid him and get his hands back to help, he travels eastward in desperation after receiving a tip-off from a patient who miraculously recovered from a devastating spinal injury.
Strange goes in search of, and eventually finds, the Kamar-Taj in Nepal – a secret compound of martial artists who specialise in mysticism, lead by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) with Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) by her side.
Being a man of science, Strange is initially sceptical; that is until The Ancient One removes Strange’s astral form from his physical form and sends him on a brief and fast paced visual effects trip through the entire multiverse.
Shortly thereafter, Strange is trained – Batman Begins style – in the ways of their craft and is taught that there is more beyond the threat of Loki or Ultron as we’ve seen in previous movies, and thus it’s The Ancient One and her clan who are protecting Earth from them.
As soon as this is established, a former student of Kamar-Taj, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) returns to wreak havoc on time and space, using stolen passages from a secret textbook kept safe at the Kamar-Taj, in order to summon a super demon by the name of Dormammu and get it to merge our universe with Dormammu’s home, the Dark Dimension; a place where there is no time, and therefore Earth will supposedly never have to collapse.
Obviously enough, handing Earth over on a plate to an incomprehensible super demon from beyond space and time doesn’t sit well with Strange and his newly found comrades at the Kamar-Taj, and so they go on a reality warping adventure to stop Kaecilius.
So yes, once again it’s another origin story, but it’s a good one and contributes an enormous amount to what we already know in the Marvel canon thus far.
Steve Ditko’s original comics featuring Strange are well remembered now because of Ditko’s inventive and vastly imaginative art and panel work, which made it very much a product of the time in which it was drawn, with the LSD-infused, Woodstock, ‘tune in, turn up, drop out’ hippie culture that spread all over youth culture during that era.
And Marvel Studios and Scott Derrickson have made the wise decision to lovingly preserve that imagery on screen. It’s fairly obvious that Derrickson, in particular, is keen on exercising the muscles of this character’s classic imagery because the first thing you’ll notice when watching ‘Doctor Strange’ is that’s clearly where all the money has gone; ‘Doctor Strange’ is beautiful from the production design upwards. The cinematography is colourful and lively, but not in a way that feels overly busy. The action sequences, of which there are many, feel intricately designed and unique to their own individual section of the plot. And ultimately what gets served is a wonderfully muscular and graceful rollercoaster ride of an experience.
That’s kind of what leads to a slight downside with ‘Doctor Strange’ because you can’t help but get the sense that the filmmakers may have missed the trick with this particular character; Strange comics were very much a part of the 60’s mellowed out mood of that time period, and thus can’t help but draw from the culture surrounding it.
The ideal Doctor Strange story is one that feels more relaxed and meditative, in a ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ sort of way.
After all, we are dealing with psychedelia here; a phrase comprised of the combined Greek words ‘psyche’ and ‘delouse’, which roughly translates as ‘mind reveal’.
Psychedelia, as a rule, is soulful and calm by design.
But the problem with adapting that to fit with the current crop of superhero movies is that ‘Doctor Strange’ wants to be a high octane action movie – specifically it’s aiming for an amped up Marvel Comics version of ‘Inception’.
That’s not a bad idea on paper, but there’s not much in the way of ‘mind revealing’ as the comic’s roots would imply; save for the initial moment when Strange gets sent tumbling across space and time, and is shown the overwhelming incomprehensibility of the multiverse, but even then it’s over before its even begun and feels like we’re in too much of a hurry.
In fact, that’s a larger issue with the movie, in a more broadly speaking kind of way; the pace of the story moves way too fast, not leaving much time for the second act where Strange begins to learn the mystic arts which should allow for the audience to take in all the new world building stuff we’re being introduced to.
Action sequences start showing up far earlier than expected, and suddenly we’re chasing villains down the rabbit whole with only a basic sketch of how the rules are supposed to work, despite their clearly being more detail than is first apparent.
Luckily, what carries everything along is that the actors are all selling the hell out of it; Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast in the lead role and really seems to lean into the whole ‘arrogant yet determined’ nature of his persona which makes that character so fun to work with.
Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor do equally great work as supporting players, turning relatively minor roles into scene stealers. And Mads Mikkelsen is clearly having a blast as the main villain, whilst remaining professional enough on the job to give Kaecilius a lot of heart and dimensionality as a character. Sadly, the weak link is Rachel McAdams, but much like Batman Begins, this problem is largely due to the script, seeing as her character barely has any screen time.
There’s really not much to work with to begin with, but McAdams acquits herself admirably. It’s just a bit of a shame there isn’t a meatier role in here to see her play with.
In spite of my mild criticisms, don’t take it as word that ‘Doctor Strange’ isn’t worth your time because it most certainly is; it just has a couple of fundamental problems that cripple it in the pursuit of greatness that only really fold it back into being a good film.
It’s worth the ticket price alone because it’s clearly the most unique and out-the-box film Marvel have put together since ‘Ant-Man’ and functions as a really neat pallet cleanser before we head back over to the main gang of heroes.
Big thumbs up and a cheeky grin.