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By Mike Hibbert
Doctor Strange adds a new weapon to an arsenal which Marvel haven’t stopped expanding since 2008. Unbelievably, their fourteenth film provides new and exciting characters and visuals, as well as bringing an entire new dimension (literally loads of dimensions are in this film) to the table; magic.
This is in no way a complaint but watching Doctor Strange felt like watching Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos on LSD in a sensory deprivation chamber. The visuals are definitely the stand out attribute of the film and were genuinely astonishing. A million people from a thousand different production companies can work for years on a film’s CGI nowadays and the end product can turn out feeling mundane, forgettable or messy. So for Strange to feel this way is no minor feat because, regardless of the spectacle, if we do not care about the characters, then it doesn’t stimulate like it should.
Although his New York accent takes some getting used to, Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular doctor is solid; both sympathetic and funny, even if he does struggle to shake Sherlock somewhat. Maybe a little too much emphasis is put on him being an arsehole early in the film but I guess subtlety isn’t the intention here. He’s earned the right to be one anyway, as the world’s number one brain surgeon, his ego is proportionally swollen. Until a terrible car crash destroys his hands and he’s forced to seek out ‘The Ancient One’ to heal him as last resort.
No time is wasted in getting Strange to Nepal and showing off the unique and original visual ideas and effects. Storyboarding this film must have been chaos. The secret society of masters led by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) works as the Avengers do, although specialising against magic threats to earth. There is a throwaway line, where a close up of Tilda Swinton’s face looks the audience directly in the eye and explains ‘if you don’t like the term magic imagine it as science, or as a program and we’re changing the source code’… I guess that’ll do in regards to making sense of it all.
Unfortunately Marvel haven’t broken free from their ongoing problem: ‘Weak Villain Syndrome’. Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) falls into the same category as Thor: The Dark World’s Malekith the Accursed and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Ronan the Accuser. Played by Mikkelson, Christopher Eccleston and Lee Pace respectively, all three could switch roles with each other and deliver the exact same performance without anyone even noticing. It’s the same character in a different costume. This category is far below the likes of Loki, Ultron and the Winter Soldier but considerably above your Whiplashes and Yellowjackets. In the growing canon of Marvel villains, they are one step above the Abominations, Ironmongers and others that are simply large versions of the heroes. But to be fair even The Abomination has done more than Thanos…
The mandatory origin-story-love-interest also features. Rachel McAdams is, as usual, likeable, but her character is far from interesting and, like when Thor is with Jane Foster and we know that Asgard is awaiting and far more interesting, here it is hard to care about Strange’s girlfriend when he’s just been fired through space and time by The Ancient One.
In Doctor Strange, we see an individual character arc, which is something I thought Marvel had forgotten about for the sake of team ups and inter-Avenger conflicts. Ham-fisted references to Infinity Stones, sequels and ‘the bigger picture’ are just as obligatory as a Stan Lee cameo and a post-credits scene in these films so, putting them aside, I was pleased how well Doctor Strange works as an isolated movie. Although, I’m not sure if this is Marvel going back to their roots or, instead, something much simpler; ripping off previous movies. Rich, brilliant, arrogant doctor sustains terrible injury then learns humility and new powers in a foreign country, returning home to defeat both personal demons and bad guy with similar powers to him. Substitute doctor for scientist and the harpsichord for the AC/DC and Doctor Strange becomes the first Iron Man film. Strange does, however, subvert the ‘Giant Beam of Light in the Sky’ trope seen in Avengers, Suicide Squad, Man of Steel and far too many other action films by alluding to it then switching to something far more creative.
Heading back to the origin film formula might not satisfy everyone or make for the most daring of plots but after the somewhat convoluted Age of Ultron and similarly Civil War, the clean cut, precise narrative was welcome and Doctor Strange more than restores the balance when it comes to originality with its visuals. It manages to stick surprisingly close to the original source material whilst being totally accessible too. Highly recommended.
Mike Hibbert is a second year Film & Media student and a big movie/comic book buff. He also writes for his own website at bionicfingerfilms.com.