Film Review – Doctor Strange (2016)

Marvel’s latest entry in its sprawling and hugely successful cinematic universe doesn’t do much in terms of narrative reinvention, but it’s a visually imaginative and amusing caper that serves as launch pad for another superhero franchise and adds a welcome mystical cog into the wider comic book machinery.

With recent DC failures Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad continuing to linger in the memory, one can’t help but be impressed by Marvel’s continued ability to produce heady and outrageously entertaining superhero blockbusters. The transfer of the magician from page to screen may not be regarded as quite the outside success story (and it will be a success) as Guardians of the Galaxy, but its place on the big screen has never been assured and the inevitable home run will be testament to the studio’s peerless ability to craft world-beating stars out of arguably second-team characters.

Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) begins the movie as a prodigious neurosurgeon with an ego to match his talent and ends it as a reality-warping magician with the power to alter time. His journey from scientific enfant terrible to spiritual wunderkind is prompted by a car crash that destroys his hands and sets him on a desperate path, not on self-discovery, but of simple greed and a desire to regain his previous, vacuously successful life. Travelling to Kathmandu, Strange encounters The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), the leader of an outlandish order of mystics charged with defending the earth against evil cosmic entities that dwell beyond our own universe, and begins his training as a monastic warrior that opens his eyes to new possibilities.

The psychedelic visuals and witty chemistry of a fine bunch of actors elevate what would otherwise be a fairly formulaic origin story. Scott Derrickson’s gambolling extravaganza watches almost like a cartoon version of Inception as battle sequences play across a twisting cityscape of warping buildings and gravity-defying kung-fu.

Cumberbatch plays it with just enough self-important cynicism that his character’s psychological breaking down feels merrily amusing, but never so much that his vulgarity feels unsightly. Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor, as an as-yet uncorrupted Karl Mordo, provide additional gravitas with Benedict Wong particularly funny as uptight companion Wong. Arguably the biggest missed opportunity is that Mads Mikkelsen’s villainous former student of The Ancient One, Kaecilius doesn’t get more screen time, a symptom of the blocky plotting.

Doctor Strange is light touch and borderline whimsical but executed with enough flamboyance and humour to ensure that it feels essential, frothy as it is. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but its outlandish visual style and humorous sensibility ensures it conjures up enough magic.

[rating=4] | Chris Banks

Fantasy, Adventure | USA, 2016 | 12A | Marvel Entertainment | 25th October 2016 (UK) | Dir.Scott Derrickson | Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chitwel Eljifor, Mads Mikkelsen