During the first 15 minutes or so of Doctor Strange, I thought I was in some trouble. The opening sequence, which showcases talented surgeon Stephen Strange in the operating room alongside one-time love interest Christine Palmer, is so loaded with exposition; I thought I had been fooled into watching an episode of one of The CW’s television offerings. And then once the egotistical Strange hits his first big personal challenge (in this case, a car accident that renders his talented hands unable to perform the medical wizardry that made him a renowned figure in his field), the melodrama becomes as thick as soup. I instantly began to rue Marvel’s choice of Scott Derrickson to take on their first foray into their “sorcerer supreme”.
Derrickson marked a directorial selection that hearkened more to the sort of mindset that brought somewhat beleaguered filmmakers like Joe Johnston and Kenneth Branagh on board during the studio’s earliest days, where that pair’s past success with similar tonal material overrode their more contemporary struggles. Derrickson, known for horror with a theological bent, has had an equally rocky road leading to his Marvel debut. With listless jump-scare features like Sinister and Deliver Us From Evil providing a somewhat dubious prologue to just what he could bring to this adaptation.
But suddenly, once the magical happenings lock into place, and Strange finds himself in Kathmandu with his proverbial third eye being opened, it’s as if we finally get to the toys that Derrickson and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill had been itching to play with. Strange is whisked away into a visually lush multiverse, with some of its images ripped right out of a Steve Ditko inspired black light poster; from there, the film rarely lets up with one inventive action sequence after another. It’s rare that I feel too terribly impressed with action set-ups, given how sort of bland and stitched from coverage they tend to be, especially in the Marvel house style, but there are a number of “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before” bits where I couldn’t help but be wowed by what was unfurling in front of me. From architecture constantly folding in on itself, to combat via astral projection, and even unique time manipulation shenanigans, this is a film whose chief interest is to blow you away with its kaleidoscope of imagery, and to allow the pesky stuff that surrounds it about Strange coming to terms with his own ego to just act as connective tissue before we get to the next roller coaster ride. This is Marvel’s best action showcase by a mile.
As for the plot that surrounds it, it mostly does the job. At its center is the typical Marvel “Han Solo” arc that’s basically informed all of their starring heroes short of Steve Rogers (who continues to stand out in that regard, the Superman surrounded by a bunch of jokey rogues). Cumberbatch effectively sells the character, and is the spitting image of the comic book hero, but his journey is one that suffers due to overfamiliarity. He’s a jerk, and then he’s not a jerk anymore and has responsibilities. Cumberbatch makes it work because he’s such imminently watchable actor, but the script tends to keep a lot of his evolution fairly vague, to the detriment of its central figure; although his ongoing jovial relationship with Wong is a nice bit of levity in a film that’s got its head in the clouds, literally.
If Doctor Strange has one ace up its sleeve, it’s that it boasts the most talented cast of this entire series of films thus far, with Tilda Swinton as the androgynous Ancient One: Strange’s mentor in all things mystic, as the clear standout. Swinton is hypnotizing in the role, parlaying nuance with even the slightest of glances, and is given easily the best emotional throughline of the entire film. Sure, Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius’ eyes water a bit as he monologues to our hero about his misguided goals, and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo has a constant specter of a dark past hovering nearby, but it’s Swinton’s bald guru that transcends every other character surrounding her through a staggeringly good performance and a script that gives way to the film’s most tactile beats. It’s ironic, given the controversy surrounding the casting of this role, but The Ancient One is the most exquisitely scripted female character in the big screen MCU – though that bar is admittedly quite low.
On the other end of the spectrum, and this no mark against the performances themselves, you’d be forgiven if you kept forgetting that Rachel McAdams’ Dr. Palmer is even in the movie, and Kaecilius, despite Mikkelsen’s attempts at squeezing every ounce of emotional energy he can from his dialogue, can be added to the ever-growing pile of forgettable Marvel bad guys. Given just how small this cast is, it makes the underwritten qualities of some of its core players all the more regrettable. But again, any short comings in this area are quickly forgotten thanks to the sheer sensory overload on-hand. By the time the third act rolls around (where much like Captain America: Civil War, Marvel seems to have cracked the code on how to finally vary up how they close these efforts out), you’ll barely feel the need to remember whatever Michael Stuhlbarg was doing.
And to touch on a couple of below the line efforts in brief, one has to applaud Marvel’s use of actual location shooting in the locations the story is set in, be it London, Nepal, or New York. It adds a richness and local color that generally isn’t present in these productions environmentally. And it’s worth adding that while Michael Giacchino’s score is fairly dull on the whole, but for once, a Marvel character gets a memorable, hummable main theme. A rarity!
To put it bluntly, Doctor Strange hosts a typical Marvel foundation, but pumped full of LSD and effectively expands the weirdest, and largely, most appealing corner of the Marvel Universe. I’m not sure you could ask for terribly too much more in this first outing. Here’s hoping it’s their first great step that hearkens a further exploration into the beyond. As it stands, Marvel’s 2016 joins their 2011 and 2014 as their best years of output.
And yes, there is a mid-credits scene, and a scene after the credits. Both are worth staying for.
Entertainment Editor for The Beat covering film, television and the occasional comic book. His work can also be found at GeekRex.com and can be heard on the GeekRex podcast. Also, your go-to Grant Morrison/Love & Rockets/Hellboy/Legion of Super-Heroes expert.