DOCTOR STRANGE. Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton. Directed by Scott Derrickson. 115 minutes. Rated M (Fantasy themes and violence).
Despite their repeated success with their pantheon of existing characters and franchises (from The Avengers to Iron Man to Captain America), the folks at Marvel Studios are never afraid to push their boundaries. In ‘Doctor Strange’, this means not only introducing an entirely new hero to their roster, but also developing an entirely new realm of possibility with the inclusion of magic. Of course, it’s not entirely ground-breaking - there is an undeniable familiarity to the way the narrative plays out - but Marvel deliver yet again, creating a blockbuster with mind-bending action, terrific casting, and a thoroughly satisfying origin narrative. Most importantly though, and this is the secret ingredient that DC Films always seem to miss, it is extremely entertaining. What could be more appropriate for a comic book adaptation?
When we first meet Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), he is a talented but arrogant neurosurgeon, his aloofness bringing his professional/romantic interest Doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) to despair. Think Tony Stark before he became Iron Man. Though none of his colleagues suspected that his absurd name naturally heralded his ascent to superhero-dom, a customary freak accident (this one of the vehicular variety) sends him down the path to heroism by destroying his most important tools – his hands. The film speeds through months as Strange throws all his money after experimental procedures to fix his busted fingers so that he can return to work. Naturally none of them work, so when he gets wind of a mysterious cure in Nepal, he spends his last dollars on a one-way ticket.
There he meets an ancient, bald, Celtic mystic known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and her offsider Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). As with most scientifically-minded character told about the existence of magic for the first time, Strange is cynical if not downright belligerent, before The Ancient One sends his astral form on an insane cosmic trip through the multiverse, which sizzles with kaleidoscopic colours and surreal visuals. The CGI-heavy presentation of sorcery throughout the film is stunning to look at, drawing heavily on comic book artist Steve Ditko’s original psychedelic designs for the character in the 60s and 70s. Strange is entranced, and is soon immersing himself in studying the ways of The Ancient One with the help of relics guardian Wong (Benedict Wong), learning powers like teleportation, conjuring weapons from pure energy that look like crackling strands of molten steel or long shards of glass, and meddling with time.
It's not all fun and games for Strange though, as the primary function of The Ancient One and her followers is to protect the Earth from supernatural threats, using three sanctums established in New York, London and Hong Kong to create a mystical forcefield around the planet. One of The Ancient One’s jaded students, a zealot called Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) complete with his own acolytes, has designs to destroy the sanctums and allow a powerful presence from another universe to take the Earth into the Dark Dimension. Strange must face a baptism by fire when Kaecilius’ plans begin to come together with accelerating success, and in a series of epic fights he must work with his mentor and her other prodigies to defeat the threat. It all culminates in an intelligent finale which eschews the sky-based battles which have been criticised for being the default showdown in the last few Marvel films. Instead, we get a staggering feast for the eyes, as both magic and time get a little twisted.
Director Scott Derrickson turns in good work, drawing strong performances from his cast and establishing an exciting look for Marvel’s foray into the mystical world of Doctor Strange. The script, which Derrickson co-wrote, doesn’t break the mould for superhero origins – there’s a mentor-student relationship, romance, fear, responsibility and world-saving stakes – but the mould exists because it’s just such a satisfying arc. Oddly though, Derrickson’s recent output writing and directing horror films isn’t particularly evident in the film (a few moments of surprisingly dark violence aside), which seems like a missed opportunity in the vast and spooky sandbox that Strange inhabits. However, it is the M.C. Escher-esque action that is the real selling point here – time flows in every which way, structures ripple like water, cities fold in on themselves (‘Inception’ must have been a reference point), gravity runs amok while spaces stretch and warp impossibly, causing characters to run along walls and ceilings like treadmills. It’s genuinely thrilling, and for once, the 3D premium may be worth paying
The cast continues the Marvel track record of recruiting a formidable list of big names. Benedict Cumberbatch is a renowned actor who has been a mainstay in just about every popular culture franchise today (‘The Hobbit’, ‘Star Trek’, ‘Sherlock’ etc.), and he proves his worth yet again. His Noo Yawk accent is spot on, his presence conveys the character’s arrogance and smarts without being unlikable, and he completely transmits the journey from powerless incurable to formidable sorcerer. Tilda Swinton was always an exciting choice for The Ancient One, an old Asian man in the comics. Conveying inner wisdom and mystery has always been a strength of the mercurial, enigmatic Swinton, and it’s well utilised here. Chiwetel Ejiofor is another new face to superhero fare, but his gravitas gives Mordo a welcome depth, particularly in his competitive relationship with Strange. Lastly, Rachel McAdams is given little to do beyond anchoring Strange to New York, but she’s always an extremely likable presence.
It may be called ‘Doctor Strange’, but there’s nothing strange about Marvel Studios churning out another winner. With another three flicks on the horizon for 2017, everything’s coming up Marvel.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out October 27.
Walt Disney Studios.