DOCTOR STRANGE ★★★½
Doctor Strange (2016) [IMDB]
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton
Conscious of the risk of superhero fatigue, Marvel has made much of the idea that Doctor Strange deviates from their usual formula. Some particularly dazzling visuals aside, it actually largely retains the feel of previous films in the MCU - with the strengths and weaknesses that tends to imply. However, powered by the performances of a strong cast, it overcomes the flaws in its story and should keep Marvel's fire burning well into 2017.
The producers of Doctor Strange reportedly devoted a great deal of effort to securing the services of Benedict Cumberbatch, and the popular actor is definitely among the film's assets. We meet him as a figure very like Tony Stark, to whom Iron Man introduced us way back in 2008 - he is successful, driven by ego, and very wealthy. While Stark's prodigious technical skill was the fuel for his eventual transition into a hero, for Strange it is his devotion to knowledge and learning that are required.
As with Stark, a great trauma provides the spark. A car crash caused by his own carelessness results in severe damage to his hands; bitter and desperate to work again, he rejects the help of old flame and colleague Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and eventually seeks spiritual assistance in exotic Nepal. These early scenes are well-paced and amusing - Strange finds his usual jokes and references fall on deaf ears among the group of sorcerors he discovers and he meets rigid magical warrior Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who gets the film's best joke. For her part, Tilda Swinton is suitably enigmatic as the androgynous "sorceror supreme", the Ancient One.
Problems creep in for the film with the full introduction of its villain, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). In the dubious tradition of the MCU, this former student of the Ancient One is a desperately unimaginitive character whose plan is uninteresting. Together with his "zealots", who include Scott Adkins and Zara Phythian, he hatches a scheme which has cosmic implications but falls flat in dramatic terms. Mikkelsen simply doesn't have enough to do, his underlings are wasted and the climax makes poor use of locations in Hong Kong. These kinds of problems have afflicted much of the MCU before now, and it's remarkable than Marvel haven't invested more effort in developing their antagonists. For all their meticulous efforts to built up their superheroes, the villains are constantly given short shrift and eight years into this franchise it's beginning to grate.
Other common criticisms of the MCU are addressed, however. Michael Giacchino's music is more distinctive than most of the previous scores Marvel have commissioned, and it's amusing to hear echoes of his 2009 Star Trek theme in places. As has been claimed, Doctor Strange does have a dramatically different look to earlier entries in the MCU - even if much of the trippy, mind-bending imagery exists only for its own sake. The action is a mixed bag: it's visually spectacular, but has little of the impact and grit sported by the last two Captain America films.
Ultimately, and probably inevitably, Doctor Strange is more a holding pattern for Marvel than a revolution. For most, however, the great humour and very strong performances from a great cast will overwhelm any misgivings. This feels like a smaller, more separate film than Phase 3's opener, Civil War, but with its mid-credits scene does set up some intriguing connections with the wider MCU. Let us hope that Cumberbatch's strong portrayal of Strange will be better served in terms of story the next time our paths cross.
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I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.