Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt
Director: Scott Derrickson
Runtime: 115 minutes
Release Date: 25th October 2016 (UK) / 4th November 2016 (US)
Stewart R: We're deep into the Marvel Cinematic Universe now. If the studio spontaneously decided to re-release its titles once a month from November 1st, starting with Iron Man and ending with Doctor Strange, we'd be going back to the cinema (quite happily, I'll add) until January 2018. With that weight of a cinematic canon however, comes great risk; how do you introduce new characters to the universe, in their own films, without retreading your own well worn formula, let alone overplayed tropes and ideas from other blockbusters? 2015's Ant-Man played heavier with the comedy factor, while Captain America: Civil War showed that a super heavyweight tentpole can win with a more focused, intimate third act. Now it turns to director Scott Derrickson and Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange to turn what we thought we knew about the MCU on its head, and in the process flip your eyes around and bounce your brain across the room.
Take a trip back five years to the original Thor film and we saw Marvel seemingly play a different hand than perhaps the comic book reading public were expecting; the Asgardians were powerful yes, but not necessarily gods. Magic and science were but one and the same, viewed from different perspectives. For a 21st Century audience, even one fully versed in the incantations of Gandalf upon the big screen, perhaps spells, wizardry, enchanted objects and sheer belief in the power of the unknown were a touch too much for this fictional universe where science led the way with mechanical suits, gamma ray mutations and super-soldier serums? And so we were given a (slightly) more believable view of Odin's kingdom. How on Earth would a character like the Sorceror Supreme fit into this adjusted model?
Here, in 2016, the audience is essentially given the very same lesson as the movie's protagonist - we do not know everything and the unexplained outweighs our knowledge by an infinite amount. It's an oft-repeated theme running through this movie's lean yet focused plot as the brilliant yet incredibly egotistical Dr. Stephen Strange has to not only let go of his restrictive confidence in proven science, but his former life in the process.
This is of course an origin story and the opening act is the riskiest gambit of all. Cumberbatch's Strange is a stubborn, cocky, medical genius infused with some of the playboy trappings that we are all too aware of from Tony Stark's background and comparisons are easy to come by. Where pre-hero Tony tried to smother his genius under the haze of partying and ended up ignoring the collateral damage of his legacy, Stephen embraces his intellect and skills, but fails to appreciate the humanity of his work, being blinded by the far off glare of the eventual prize. Once the rug - or road - is literally pulled out from under his feet and his life comes crashing down, Cumberbatch really gets to play with the stubborn desperation of a broken Strange and delivers one of the most emotive performances the Marvel brand has seen yet.
The initial steps on the path to enlightenment are a touch sparse, but once the Ancient One appears on screen the real magic begins. Swinton and Cumberbatch share great chemistry as their twisted teacher/student relationship unfolds, with the former showing fine form as a learned master opening the most closed of minds, yet showing occasional nervous uncertainty on her own choices and decisions. Just as the dialogue unfurls its fine philosophical petals, the effects department get to flex their visual skills as we get our first glimpses of the myriad of dimensions that exist alongside our own. From the trailers it appeared that the mystical exploration might just be held to a few Inception-nodding folds of time and space, but in a glorious, whirlwind tour Strange is flung through a myriad of mind-bending realms that truly deliver the awe, especially when viewed in 3D.
There's a measured balance to be found within Derrickson's direction with the cast relatively small and many of the real world settings feeling compact, almost cosy compared with the unending sprawl of the visual 'impossibilities'. There are odd moments of levity that aim to soften the edges of the exposition - Strange's clothing adventures are a sheer delight - and arguably give it that Marvel feel, but a few do feel a touch superfluous when a little more time could have been given over to Mads Mikkelsen's Kaecilius, a villain who falls into that ever filling pit of 'the vaguely defined'. The early antagonists in a hero's greater journey seem doomed to under-development in general due to the constraints of runtime and plotting, but luckily there are wilder cards in play through the course of Doctor Strange that offer tantalising prospects for future sequels.Further compliments can be given over to director and writers for providing Marvel's first great post-romance with Stephen and Rachel McAdams' Christine Palmer having already been there, done that and are now building a different kind of friendship after the crash, break-up and rebirth. They have a decent enough chemistry together and Palmer acts as the pull to the so-called real world that the film needs to stop it from getting too out of hand and forgetting its heart - even if, for a qualified doctor, Palmer has trouble in that department in a baffling moment.
And for all its mystical sheen, mind-boggling effects and steely, suave hero, Doctor Strange does have some heart in the right places. From Cumberbatch's portrayal of a brilliant man crippled by his own actions and arrogance who then embraces his powerful intellect to learn lessons anew, to Swinton's Ancient One accepting the limitations of her great power and Ejiofor's Mordo painfully learning for a second time that all is not as he believed it to be. It all flies by in the blink of an eye, performed by an incredibly strong cast who all seem to relish being a part of one of Marvel's riskier gambits. The risk has paid off with a quality-filled origin story that instantly demands a sequel if only to hear more talk of the Eye of Agamotto or the Wand of Watoomb and be treated to even greater visual insanity. 9/10