The uniquely named Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an all star neurosurgeon worthy of working with House MD. After a horrific car crash involving the vertical part of a cliff edge he loses use of his hands and his career is seemingly over. As he seeks to regain his digital dexterity Strange hears of a unique therapy in Nepal and spends the last of his wealth to travel there. After an initial rebuttal Strange is enrolled on a magical journey as he learns from the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Wong (Benedict Wong) about the art of sorcery and the multi-dimensional universe. Acupuncture eat your heart out! Naturally there is a big bad threatening the establishment Strange has only just discovered and so he must fight the evil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen and his cheekbones) and a being of a much more threatening and less tangible nature. Space and time are bent to the sorcerers’ wills as they fight for what each thinks is right.
The huge success of this particular Marvel film is how free of the usual Marvel trappings it is. We are spared the overarching Avengers narrative, there are no CGI behemoths punching other CGI behemoths, and the story is compact enough to fit in one film. The Marvel Cinematic Universe can feel needlessly complicated and bloated so in comparison Doctor Strange is pleasantly lean. While there are nods to the wider franchise, and the obligatory mid-credits sequence, by and large Doctor Strange stands on its own two feet. There is nothing you need to know going in other than that you are going to have to try and dissociate Cumberbatch from the aloof, arrogant genius of Sherlock as he tackles the aloof, arrogant genius of Doctor Strange.
With its plot of multiple universes, time meddling, and magic Doctor Strange handles the fantasy well by simultaneously taking it absolutely seriously and being able to joke about it. The jokes are not as strong as they could be but the film is refreshingly lighthearted in amongst exposition about ancient texts and mirror worlds. That said the contractual Stan Lee cameo comes in the midst of an action set piece and his appearance completely took me out of the scene. Interrupting action for a quip by a random bystander isn’t always a wise move.
Another niggle with the film is its limited female roles. Tilda Swinton’s part as the Ancient One puts her in a prominent role and easily adds an extra star to any review of the film. That she was cast in as a character originally destined for a man almost makes up for the whitewashing her casting brings. Swinton is the ultimate chameleon and manages to deliver wild exposition with calm certainty that allows you to almost believe it. Sadly Rachel McAdams as nurse and occasional love interest takes up the only other female position and is given little to do other than pine after Strange and clean his wounds when he deigns to drop through a portal and back into her life.
Where Strange really triumphs is in the visuals afforded by a plot filled with magicians who can bend space and time. The film takes Inception as a leaping off point and continues to meld the world beyond what we have seen before. Strange is without a doubt smarter than your average superhero adventure as it chooses a battle of logic for its final showdown and a totally unique fight scene in Hong Kong in which time flies every which way. Doctor Strange is a feast for the eyes and offers plenty of visual firsts.
With its cast Strange also excels. Cumberbatch may be the main draw but his Strange is relatively anonymous; it is the characters surrounding him that really stand out. Among the goodies we have the aforementioned Swinton who is ably flanked by indie British comedy legend Benedict Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and actor with an inbuilt reserve of gravitas. Everybody’s favourite Scandinavian Mads Mikkelsen provides the slight accent needed to be the bad guy as he no doubt will in Rogue One later in the year. Mikkelsen is a class act able to bring depth to the typical role of bad guy out to destroy the world. With McAdams rounding out the cast in the smallest role Doctor Strange really does have the most overqualified cast.
Doctor Strange is not going to be anybody’s favourite film, nor is it going to trouble any awards. What is is it a refreshingly different superhero film in a franchise where the films have started to blur. An enjoyable flight of fancy all the more enjoyable for its lack of ties to the wider Marvel universe. Sadly we know that will change before too long.