Universally praised and cinema’s biggest money spinner, it may seem odd to declare that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has “a problem.” Almost every film thus far – from Robert Downey, Jr’s iconic debut in Iron Man, right up to May’s epic Captain America: Civil War – has boasted likable characters, real heart, great wit and some fantastic action. Yet for all that, it seems as though audiences don’t often sit down to watch a Marvel flick with an expectation of being genuinely surprised. Marvel origin films in particular have all played out very similarly and Doctor Strange follows suit.
Scott Derrickson’s feature boasts visuals unlike anything you’ve ever seen in the MCU. However, its script feels like a page-by-page retread of 2008’s Iron Man, just with magic instead of futuristic technology. Beat-for-beat it does nothing more than the bare minimum, so far as an origin story is concerned.
Though, while Doctor Strange does feel like it follows the MCU’s paint-by-numbers film design, nobody can deny the paint itself is once again quite excellent. In terms of introducing Benedict Cumberbatch as someone set to become a big player in the franchise’s future, in addition to the entire concept of magic in a universe mostly bereft of it, Doctor Strange is certainly a success.
Cumberbatch is great in the lead role, whose initially arrogant neurosurgeon has been written like a gleeful cross between Tony Stark and Dr. House. The blow to his ego and subsequent journey of self-discovery is where the parallels with Iron Man are at their most stark. Though he certainly makes for a convincing Sorcerer Supreme once his transformation is complete. He has the look and voice down to a tee, and the character’s wit and dry sense of humour suits him well. The prospect of Cumberbatch sharing the screen with Downey at some point is pretty exciting.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast, besides Tilda Swinton, rather fade into the background. It would be a surprise to see them in the MCU again, unless there’s a direct sequel to be had. Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong are all starved of meaningful screen time. Meanwhile, Mads Mikkelsen’s villain is another bland foe in a universe that already has plenty of them.
Yet despite Strange’s generic character arc and a forgettable ensemble, Doctor Strange does find new ways to impress. As great as Cumberbatch is, even he is overshadowed by some of the most spectacular visual effects sequences seen on the big screen in recent memory – certainly the most creative. While Stark found himself by building an iron suit in a Middle Eastern cave, Strange has his eyes opened by a mind-bending sequence in which he tumbles through multiple universes. Its delightfully abstract nature plays out like an eclectic mix of Inception and Sergeant Pepper, and even Strange himself queries whether someone’s slipped him LSD.
Audiences have been so spoilt for choice when it comes to big budget blockbusters that the impact of action created by computer wizardry has been rather neutered. Having been utilised so brilliantly by the likes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Mad Max: Fury Road, practical effects seem to be coming back into fashion. Doctor Strange turns out to be a telling reminder of just how impressive CGI-driven set pieces can still be. The film’s third act battle is really quite stupendous, especially in 3D.
Images: Walt Disney Co./Marvel
Doctor Strange (2016)
Doctor Strange is impeccably led by Cumberbatch and is chock-full of the wit and charm we’ve come to expect from Marvel, but it is the genuinely awe-inspiring visuals that do most to set it apart. If as much creativity had been afforded to the storytelling, Doctor Strange could have been something truly special.