The monumental success of Marvel’s core Iron Man and Captain America films has given them the freedom to pursue more offbeat and risky projects, such as Ant Man, Guardians of the Galaxy and now Doctor Strange, which takes the series in an exciting, psychedelic new direction.
Benedict Cumberbatch is in his element playing the titular, egotistical neurosurgeon in a role that, at first, doesn’t seem hugely different from his iconic portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. As Strange cruises along in a flashy car, listening to an assistant reel off potential patients for him to treat, one easily recalls the opening of A Scandal of Belgravia, if hospital patients were to replace detective cases.
Both Strange and Sherlock are highly intelligent to the point of arrogance, prioritising their own personal engagement in the jobs they choose to take, rather than the needs of their respective subjects. And then irony strikes: Strange’s car crashes spectacularly, and leaves him on a hospital bed with severely paralysed hands, but the only one brilliant enough to treat him, frustratingly, would be himself.
“At one particularly bizarre point, Cumberbatch looks down at his hand, to see each finger has grown into another hand, and before long his whole body is swamped by grabbing hands”
After several failed attempts to find a cure for his debilitating condition, Strange turns his back on fellow surgeon and love interest Christine (Rachel McAdams) and follows a vague lead that sends him east, to Nepal. This decision strikes a parallel with several blockbuster films of the current age, which have failed to generate income on home soil yet have attained great success in emerging Eastern box offices.
Looking for a mysterious place called Kamar-Taj, Strange is approached by sorcerer Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who introduces him to the mysterious Ancient One (Tilda Swinton); together they draw him into an otherworldly, mystical community that have much deeper intentions than simply getting rid of his shakes.
It is here where the film turns psychedelic. The Ancient One transports Strange into another dimension, in a surreal sequence that is by far the most experimental Marvel have ever attempted. At one particularly bizarre point, Cumberbatch looks down at his hand, to see each finger has grown into another hand, and before long his whole body is swamped by grabbing hands.
Director Scott Derickson displays a no-holds barred attitude towards these magical sequences, which are reminiscent of the ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’ extract of Kubrick’s 2001, while some of the fight scenes in New York clearly evoke the mind-bending dreamscapes of Inception.
For, while the Avengers protect the world from physical threats, the sorcerers at Kamar-Taj are on guard against mystical ones. In this regard, Strange is a subtle and intelligent move from Marvel. Many of the fight sequences take place in the mystical Mirror World, and because of this the film averts a common criticism levelled at recent superhero films (particularly DC’s): that they always resort to unabashed city-destroying antics.
Strange’s climactic battle against the film’s villain, Kaecilius, (Mads Mikkelsen) in Hong Kong is a neat inversion of the collateral damage of such climactic battles. However, Mikkelsen’s bad guy, a rogue pupil of the Ancient One who seeks to destroy time and bring about everlasting life, lacks depth and is one of the film’s weaker elements.
Tilda Swinton’s casting as the Ancient One initially drew accusations of whitewashing, yet it is a testament to her beguiling talent that the character emerges as one of Marvel’s most progressive; to even refer to Swinton’s Ancient One as a ‘she’ seems to undo her attempt to create what seems to be the first non-binary character in their Comic Universe.
In ways such as this, Doctor Strange is an impressively ambitious blockbuster, though it is perhaps a shame that its plot structure, with stock characters and unsurprising character arcs, veers a little towards conventionality. Furthermore, some of the more ‘contemporary’ jokes about Wi-Fi codes and pop culture figures seem a little forced and unnecessary. Rather, it is when the film truly embraces its strangeness that it truly shines.
Verdict: Doctor Strange is another great success for Marvel, in what may be their most visually audacious film to date.
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