Nearly 100 years ago Edwin Hubble proved that the universe really does keep on expanding, though revised calculations suggest that roughly seven years from now there will no longer been any free space left, as the actual universe will be overstuffed with the even-more-rapidly-expanding universe of movies featuring second- or third-tier Marvel and DC comic book characters. Here’s another one for your delectation, directed by Scott Derrickson (hitherto best known for making horror films) and featuring a promising cast of thesps that includes, among others, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Rachel McAdams.
I remember reading and enjoying Marvel’s Doctor Strange comics when I was a kid, and hoped for a number of years that Disney’s Marvel Studios would eventually bring this odd, fantastical sorcerer to the big screen; however it never seemed likely, given Hollywood’s long-standing and myopic obsession with just a few specific Marvel properties: Spider-Man, Hulk, X-Men and Fantastic Four for the most part, with the occasional outlier project (most notably Blade). The recent financial successes of films featuring some of Marvel’s less-well-known characters – Ant-Man and the Guardians Of The Galaxy crew, for example – has (somewhat predictably) initiated a spell of greater risk-taking by the studio in terms of the heroes it has decided to feature both now and in the near future: along with Doctor Strange, the likes of Captain Marvel and Black Panther will soon have their own standalone introductory pieces. They are loved by many comic book fans of all ages, though they’re hardly household names.
Derrickson’s take on Doctor Strange offers the familiar comfort of a Marvel origin story – a brief bit of background info and scene-setting; events that subsequently transform the hero and allow them to be bestowed with special powers (don’t overthink it… he travels to Nepal, where incredible abilities can apparently be taught to any brainy American with a backpack who happens to be passing through); a few quips; and a couple of tension-free battles with a dastardly villain (while another, potentially greater and long-standing foe is quietly developed in the background). It also offers something slightly different to the norm: within the first two minutes Mikkelsen’s bad guy Kaecilius (a barely-known comic antagonist) decapitates another man and fights Swinton’s shaven-headed Celtic mystic while physics-defying buildings fold, Inception-like, all around them; it’s clear from the off, then, that one of the main draws of this film will be its psychedelic special effects, and the director subsequently incorporates several sequences that both impress on the big screen and leave the mind boggled and over-stimulated.Doctor Strange himself is initially just Steve Strange, a top neurosurgeon, but eventually he learns how to access other dimensions, perform out-of-body tasks and all sorts of other things that enable him to create flashy portals and freeze or loop time and fold skyscrapers and battle giant purple heads that have come from goodness knows where to crush humanity (though, somewhat disappointingly, when push comes to shove Doctor Strange resorts to the age-old staple of hero and villain battering the living daylights out of one another on a busy metropolitan street). The film is at its most entertaining when it feels like you’re stuck inside Jerry Garcia’s head circa 1968 (I can certainly recommend going in after a couple of beers, though I gave up trying to follow the explanations given for all the weirdness very quickly). It’s colourful, the Escher/Nolan-style images are later joined by effects that pay tribute to sources as varied as The Wachowskis, Hammer horrors from the 1960s and 1970s and The Twilight Zone, and its a treat to see actors like Swinton and Cumberbatch involved with an effects-heavy blockbuster such as this.
All the usual Marvel stuff sits a little uneasily on top of the screenplay’s dalliances with eastern mysticism, spirituality, different dimensions, astral planes and whatnot, but the film looks great and it packs as many laughs in as you’d expect from the studio (Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as Strange, effortlessly building up the man’s arrogance before revealing a deft, hitherto unseen flair for comic timing). There are jokes too from Benedict Wong, who plays a librarian, and Rachel McAdams, a perplexed fellow surgeon who has a little trouble getting her head around the all-new, powerful Strange. In fact the game cast is another one of the film’s strengths, though a sullen Mikkelsen doesn’t get much to work with and I have no idea why Michael Stuhlbarg signed up to play Man Who Gets Extra Packet Of Crisps From Vending Machine. Overall, then, an entertaining addition to the ever-expanding collection, though its a shame that Derrickson (or whoever’s pulling the strings on these films) repeatedly follows up the more bonkers moments with the usual safe, familiar, superhero scenes, which are packed with tropes we’ve seen too many times before. There is visual flair here, but ultimately Doctor Strange is as formulaic as its predecessors; to expect anything other than that in 2016 and beyond seems fruitless, now.
Directed by: Scott Derrickson.
Written by: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill, Jon Spaihts. Based on Doctor Strange by Steve Ditko.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt.
Cinematography: Ben Davis.
Editing: Wyatt Smith, Sabrina Plisko.
Music: Michael Giacchino.
Running Time: 115 minutes.