Doctor Strange was just released in Japan, three months after its US release. However it’s the first Marvel film of the last couple of years that I haven’t rushed to the cinema to watch. In fact, I didn’t necessarily want to see it in the first place because of my lack of interest in the character.
Until now Marvel had avoided the concept of magic in its cinematic universe. Scarlet Witch’s lack of “chaos magic” being a clear example. Instead Doctor Strange immediately showcases the unique approach to sorcery and wizardry during the opening scenes as The Ancient One battles Kaecilius and his forces. Put simply, the film looks and sounds fantastic. Strange’s introduction into the astral plane and dimensional shifts is a dazzling acid trip of colours, shapes and animations. The dizzying New York fight sequence between Strange, Mordo and Kaecilius is almost too hectic. I actually found myself briefly looking away from the screen in order to refocus. It’s an impressive set of action sequences that contrasts well with the franchise’s typical use of explosions and fistfights. My only issue is that while the environments and the effects are spectacular, the character models dancing around these kaleidoscopic set-pieces aren’t as polished.
Story-wise, for the Marvel Universe to include Doctor Strange it was definitely justified in creating an origin film for such a unique character. We see Strange’s progression and transformation from the arrogant neurosurgeon to “Master of the Mystic Arts”. In fact the film wastes little time in showing Strange’s growth as an individual. One minute he’s struggling to use his hands, the next he’s surpassing his mentors and teachers. The film also does a good job at hinting at the grander scale and scope of Strange’s world. A multitude of dimensions, time manipulation, and the global nature of the Sanctums create a character, property and the basis for a plethora of interesting opportunities and situations in the future.
But for all the film tries to differentiate itself from it’s Marvel counterparts, it still follows the typical narrative progression of any traditional superhero film. And with that comes a lot of the same, reoccurring problems. The most disappointing being the villain. Marvel yet again squanders the opportunity to present a villain of note. Mads Mikkelsen is one of my favourite actors and very capable of playing captivating foes. The problem lies in creating a balance between developing the protagonist and the antagonist, which the very nature of an “origin story” restricts. The story’s focus is purely on Strange, and Mikkelsen’s motivations and character are thus largely relegated to exposition and incoherent babble. In fact by the end of the film, his character withers away in the background in order to introduce the real villain Dormammu, who is equally trivialised in the last 10 minutes. With a wealth of villains in it’s universe, its frustrating and worrying that Marvel can’t seem to forge a character with any lingering danger or presence.
In regards to the titular character, Benedict Cumberbatch certainly looks the part and he can wave his arms in a convincing manner. At times while the script falters and so too does his accent, his charisma proves just enough to create an engaging character. But I’m still not convinced that he is an actor worthy of his popularity or high esteem. Meanwhile, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor are great in their supporting roles, but Rachel McAdams is left by the wayside to question her own function in the film.
For me, Dr Strange wasn’t the evolutionary step in the Marvel franchise many critics have deemed it to be. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an enjoyable film with fantastic visuals. But it lacks a certain narrative charm or individualism that feels necessary with the character and the property. If Strange is indeed part of the next Avengers instalment, then I’ll be interested to see how they frame him with the likes of Hawkeye and Captain America. With a character so omnipotent, it seems pretty laughable to have him levitating next to a purple-dressed archer.