The latest Marvel Comics adaptation starts in the library of a religious sanctum called Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu, Nepal. Villainous ex-acolyte Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) executes the librarian and makes off with a page from one of their most sacred texts. He is interrupted by the sect’s leader, The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who tells him that the page from the book will bring him only darkness. However he brushes her off and disappears through a portal to arrive halfway around the world in London. Cue the first spectacular set piece as The Ancient One follows them and the city morphs into a bizarre battleground.
Meanwhile, over in New York Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant neurosurgeon who works with his most trusted colleague and lover, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), faces personal tragedy as his sports car careens off a cliff. While his life has been saved, his all-important hands are badly damaged and, while surgery on them was partially successful they no longer hold steady - meaning that his own career wielding the scalpel is now in ruins. Just when he is about to give up hope, his doctor shows him a file about a previous patient who, against all odds, made a full recovery when his legs were damaged and the same procedure was applied.
Strange, anxious to get his hands back in complete working order, pays this man, named Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a visit. He tells Strange that he required the mystical arts he learnt at Kamar-Taj in order to walk again. So… Strange jets off to Kathmandu to seek out this ancient temple. While there, he runs into some would-be muggers but is saved by the martial arts skills of Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who had overheard of his quest to seek Kamar-Taj. He guides him to the temple where he meets with The Ancient One. The uber-rational Strange is initially bemused when he hears about the disciplines taught in this place, and arrogantly dismisses it all as parlour-trickery. However he finds that the place exerts a pull on him that proves hard to resist, and quickly proves how adept he is at the remarkable abilities bestowed by their teachings. Meanwhile, Kaecilius is planning on launching an all-out attack on the organisation.
This one doesn’t tinker too much with the Marvel Superhero formula; a person discovers they have access to great powers and stumbles through using his new gifts, thus becoming the saviour of the world; a series of surrounding characters populated by a wizened old mentor, a long-standing on-off romantic interest and an archetypal villain; a slew of pop-culture in-jokes and trickily introduced iconography; the obligatory Stan Lee cameo. So far, so much a case of “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” It’s the surface details that are different.
Wow though... what surface details!
As pure spectacle, Doctor Strange may well be the best thing to come out this year. I’m not a big fan of CGI; I feel that it is often overused and too cartoony to connect with. However, here is a film that by necessity is about unshackling itself from the conventional laws of the universe, and hence really needs to fully exploit the “anything is possible” realm of CPU processing power to really work. The visual effects are really something to behold as architecture twists and folds, and gravity flips and tilts to make landscapes that come across like a brainstorming session between Inception and M.C. Escher trying to create art nouveau Rubik’s puzzles. The Dark Dimension is a psychedelic thing of wonder - like stepping into a lava lamp crossed with a three-dimensional tie-dye design. More importantly, the numerous action sequences that take place in these twisty-turny realities are handled in a wonderfully zippy and fluent manner by director Scott Derrickson. While long, these scenes contain enough micro-moments of fun and suspense to avoid sliding into monotony. The best involves a corridor in Kamar-Taj turning into a tall, deep pit with a trio of portals at the bottom, each leading to different parts of the world. Mind you, the finale with its wild time paradoxes comes close.
In lieu of an original plot what gives the film a centre is that it maintains a sense of internal logic amongst all of the outside-the-box chaos. While the physical world is turned upside down (and inside out, on its side and so on) there is a pleasing aspect of metaphysics to the proceedings, where responsibility and constraints have to be applied to these endless powers to keep everything in order in the universe. Strange, meanwhile, transitions from the world of established physical logic to the world of imagination. The latter The Ancient One refers to as “widening the keyhole he peers through” and hence functions as an extension of his intelligence rather than an invalidation of it, by untethering his thinking from an academic box.
Cumberbatch is excellently cast as Doctor Strange. He maintains a sense of arrogant aloofness and dry humour but also brings plenty of depth to his early scenes of devastation at losing the power of his hands. While the other characters aren’t quite as well painted as they could have been, Tilda Swinton does bring a sense of calm, matriachal authority to her role as Strange’s mentor. If I was to point to another shortcoming here (apart from the aforementioned issues with the generic story and thinly-drawn supporting characters) it’s the occasional moments that get bogged down in too much exposition and mystical mumbo-jumbo. Thankfully such scenes don’t go on for too long as Derrickson doesn’t lose sight of his remit of getting on with the fun.
Doctor Strange is best seen on as big a screen as possible for maximum enjoyment from its jaw-dropping visuals, but thankfully has just enough else going on to be more than pure spectacle. It’s how a blockbuster should be done.
Runtime: 115 mins
Dir: Scott Derrickson
Script: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill, from a comic by Steve Ditko
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Benjamin Bratt