There was a time when Marvel movies felt vaguely dangerous. Releasing Thor, Captain America and The Avengers one after the other seemed overambitious, and fans could only hope that they wouldn’t screw it up. Now, their IPs drop like mixtapes; Ant-Man is another box checked, and Civil War is the latest routine delivery of fanboy dreams made real. The real test will be in twenty years’ time, when nascent cinephiles are picking through this decade’s canon to see what the fuss was about, of which Avengers et al will be an inextricable part. When that time comes, and the barrelling hype train is finally left behind, Doctor Strange has a better chance of impressing than most. It’s a traditional fantasy journey powered in its own right by a sense of the unknowable and a star turn from Benedict Cumberbatch, and the way it cleaves to traditional pleasures with few distractions is charming and effective.
Director Scott Derrickson leads us into this realm of wizards, but through the back-door of horror stylings that he made his name on (Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose): the opening starts in a dark courtyard, dogs howling in the distance, and ends with a decapitation. We move to New York, where Strange (Cumberbatch) holds court as a neurosurgeon. He’s so casually brilliant that he names songs on the operating theatre’s jukebox, dismisses a time-of-death announcement from his colleague (A Serious Man‘s Michael Stuhlbarg, for whatever reason) and pulls a bullet out of a brain like a tailor extending his tape measure. His self-absorbed chatter around his subordinates and girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams, great but wasted) shows that it’s earned him much more admiration than affection. On the way to a high-society dinner, he crashes his Lamborghini, and wakes up to find his precious hands gouged with pins and needles. No matter what procedures he puts himself through, they’re not the same as they were. Out of options, and desperate for purpose, he follows a tip from a cured paraplegic to Nepal, where he finds a supposed breeding ground for miracles and the meat-and-potatoes sorcery begins proper.
The writing (credits to Derrickson, Sinister writing partner C. Robert Cargill, and Prometheus drafter Jon Spaihts) is serviceable, often amusing, but feels the need to shout major plot points to the back seats more than once. An early confrontation between Strange and Palmer in his loft is tough to stomach when thinking of the deftly written exchanges in Civil War. Still, as someone who’s had one foot in the bag for these things since X-Men, I put up with the stuffiness in anticipation of when the window gets thrown open, and boy, does it ever here. For one thing, the guru that sends Strange on his trip is Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, bald-headed and perpetually grinning to herself like a gangly Caillou. She and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who dispenses his usual bravura as a fellow mystic called Karl Mordo, are fashionable tweaks from the racial and patriarchal stereotypes they embodied on the page, though there is nothing to Swinton’s take that is so worth defending in the way Marvel has done against mounting accusations of whitewashing. Then come the hallucinations; brief but jolting sequences where Strange goes tumbling and caterwauling through lurid landscapes, as reminiscent of psychadelica as Steve Ditko’s original book panels. It’s not like Marvel have suddenly grown a counter-cultural streak, of course—Swinton’s narration makes overt reference to the “multi-verse”, like a bullet point on a corporate pitch—but it infuses the training and questing to come with an authentic sense of scale.
As Strange builds his power base, even those who tire of the Hero’s Journey beats will have plenty of visual references to grab onto. Strange is not the first pampered, goateed smart-aleck in Marvel’s stable, and there’s a whiff of Inception to the mirror realm where Strange and his adversary Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) fold New York into an MC Escher maze. To my mind, though, the closest comparison is Green Lantern—yes, that pre-Snyder DC fiasco that became a throwaway gag in Deadpool. Consider this multi-racial secret society, its super-powered rings (Ryan Reynolds drew swords and jetplanes, these ones make portals—a much clearer function), the undulating cosmic menace they must thwart, and the brash new recruit who, for all the bumps in the road, does the deed and winds up more or less a Master of the Universe. It’s a soothing tonic for 12 year-old loners—who of them would see this and not want their own Sling Ring? That said, where it improves on the recipe is by having a heart. It’s not so much in a sympathetic protagonist, since Strange remains self-righteous to some degree by the end, but the tools of his trade: relics, cloaks, and spells that feel real and reckonable. They’re the physical manifestations of “study and practice”, as Strange puts it, and they make the computer-generated extravaganzas more grounded and pleasing than most.
The sum total, while jolly, still feels like a distraction. Marvel’s greatest weakness continues to be an overcommitment to efficiency, succeeding without excelling. Take their latest villain, for instance, who is yet another shallow, dark-mirror reflection of the protagonist. Mikkelsen very cunningly conveys his motivations in a single scene where he is made motionless by one of Strange’s new gadgets, and those are as understandable and interesting as they could possibly be with that limitation. In all other scenarios he’s pretty much interchangeable with his blank second-in-command (martial artist Scott Adkins). I also struggle to think of anyone carrying the torch for a side character like Benedict Wong’s taciturn librarian, even though he gets some of the best gags.1 For all their dedication to crafting a blockbuster universe for us to get lost in, it lacks the fine touches and fascinations that mark the most cherished of the kind—Star Wars and Potter will probably school them in the next month.
At the same time, it seems open enough to change for the better. A Disney-owned studio can only ever move by inches, but having such a boyish and daggy score by Michael Giacchino is a good inch indeed.2 It’s also nice that Marvel seem to be as weary of destruction-derby climaxes as we are. Cases in point: the final bystander-less brawl of Civil War, and this film’s centrepiece, where the collateral damage is literally halted and reversed before our eyes. These and other points of difference shouldn’t be praised too highly, since “weird” is a relative term that would still would be thrown around if this were merely Iron Man with fractals. Ultimately, though, a fun paradox remains: as Doctor Strange adds an exotic-sounding glossary to the company’s sales documents, Derrickson and his team’s interest in steadfast tradition wins the day.
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