Movies nowadays don’t get much bigger than those produced by Marvel Studios. It seems, between the smash-hit films, an excessive range of high-quality comics and plethora of video games, this particular brand of superhero permeates just about every piece of media around.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe began with Iron Man (2006), and the spectacular financial gamble the ailing studio made paid off with aplomb. We were introduced to Robert Downey Jr.’s smart, charismatic, modern superhero and once that particular floodgate opened up, there was no stopping it. With few enough duds among them, Marvel’s massive series of superhero films have taken the cinemagoer’s world by storm.
Doctor Strange, released in October, tackles one of Marvel’s oldest, if not most well-known heroes, and stars the ever-excellent Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role. After a vicious car accident derails his way of life, arrogant surgeon Stephen Strange journeys to Kamar-Taj to learn the mystic arts and prevent the world from being destroyed by zealot Kaecillius. I do warn you, however, YE ARE ABOUT TO ENTER THE SPOILER DIMENSION. JOURNEY NO FURTHER UNLESS YE WISH TO LEARN OF THINGS TO COME.
Above all else, perhaps, Doctor Strange is a film that uses both hands – sure, you’ve got a star-studded cast with massive names like Benedict Cumberbatch and Mads Mikkelsen, but what you’ve probably been hearing about the most is the extraordinary and extensive use the film makes of visual effects and CGI.
And, as you can see, it is a worthy talking point. Doctor Strange as a comic book has always dealt with the weird, the unnatural and the extraordinary, and I’m really glad as a Marvel fan that this aspect of the character translated so well to the silver screen. The VFX studio really knocked it out of the park on this one, I’ve got to say. Compared to the tech-saturated, bleeding-edge look of Avengers: Age of Ultron or The Winter Soldier, Strange carries an entirely different aesthetic. This can be seen in everything from the dynamic, visually-arresting fight scenes to the very way that characters move.
Speaking of the fight scenes, they’re bloody intense. Especially the one towards the middle, when Strange and Mordo do battle across a twisting landscape of shifting buildings as they attempt to escape from Kaecillius. You’ve probably heard the comparison to watching a film through a kaleidoscope. This is absolutely warranted, and it’s fantastic. Honestly, the visuals are one of the highlights of this film.
It’s not the only one, however, not at all. The cast turn in deft performances all around. Benedict Cumberbatch is, as always, stellar, and wonderfully portrays Strange’s transition from arrogance to desolation. Though some parts of his performance do seem quite familiar at times, he manages to pull off one of the MCU’s deeper main protagonists quite well, exuding both swagger and pathos.
Rachel McAdams’ role as Christine Palmer was a rather straightforward one, but she accounts herself ably all the same, and a good thing too, because her character could have been so boring in the hands of a lesser actress.
There are also some characters from the Strange comics that are making their cinematic debut. Wong, played by Benedict Wong (nice one there lads), is one example and I’m really glad how he turned out. For those unaware, in the comics, Wong is essentially Strange’s magic manservant. Not here, however – here, he’s a mace-wielding badass. Though played for laughs a few times, Wong gives this new Wong a great start, and one we’re actually able to take seriously by film’s end.
In addition, Tilda Swinton portrays the Ancient One, the sorcerer supreme, Strange’s magical mentor. In the source material, the Ancient One is a bloke, and a wee bit of a Fu Manchu stereotype. According to the director, the decision to switch the character’s gender was made because of predicted negative reception to what could be seen as a racist character, and so, we get something completely different. Accusations of whitewashing aside, I think Swinton is one of the highlights of the film, delivering a unique, mysterious and fascinating character.
The other casting triumph is, for me, the ever-excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, The Martian). Portraying Mordo, a nemesis of Strange’s in the comics, Ejiofor continues to display his superior abilities here. Introduced to us as an ally of Strange and disciple of the Ancient One, Ejiofor plays an utterly principled, calm Mordo that fans of the comics probably aren’t used to. Given however his sudden shift in morals seen in the post-credits scene, it’s going to be really exciting to see how the MCU handles him and I can’t wait, personally.
It isn’t all good. This film has its problems.
Let’s start off with the villain. Now, Mads Mikkelsen (who portrays Kaecillius) is an unquestionably fine actor – if you’ve seen Hannibal, you know what I mean. And, whilst he does pull off a pretty good speech there around halfway through the film, I feel that he too falls prey to the trap of Marvel’s origin story villains. This, of course, is that in order to have a villain in a hero’s first outing, the criteria generally states that the bad guy needs to be defeated. In addition, you need to spend time on developing the hero’s character and more permanent supporting cast to prepare for future outings, and so, poor Kaecillius is rather left by the wayside. What little he does have is mostly spent in one of the film’s fight scenes, which, though spectacular, don’t leave much space for character development.
On the subject of character, we come to Cumberbatch’s problem. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking – Benedict Cumberbatch has no failings as an actor whatsoever! And, in a practical sense, I agree. The guy is a legend, and his acting talents are no less on display here than usual. The usual, however, is rather the issue here.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays an arrogant, socially-impaired genius in Doctor Strange, and unfortunately, he played an arrogant, socially-impaired genius in Sherlock and The Imitation Game, two of his most well-known roles, the former of which is widely considered to define his career. A lot of the time, he’s treading over old ground as Strange, and it’s a little bit grating at times. There’s smatterings of Sherlock Holmes and more than a little Greg House in here, and it’s sometimes hard to ignore. Cumberbatch’s performance, while excellent, is certainly the path more travelled.
Overall, Doctor Strange is a good film – visually stunning, well-acted and an interesting departure from the usual superhero fare. With Marvel’s Phase Three well underway, I’m excited to see what the future holds.
Unfortunately, it does suffer from its fair share of flaws – for all its star-studded crew, it doesn’t give Mads Mikkelsen a fair shake and in doing so, suffers a fatal flaw of many first instalments of superhero films, underusing one of its best actors. In addition, Benedict Cumberbatch tips into very familiar ground here, bordering occasionally on typecast. Lastly, though the CGI is one of the best points of the film, it can on occasion seem a little obtrusive into some of the quieter moments of the film.
All in all, I’m giving Strange…
If you liked this review, feel free to leave a comment and to check out some of the other stuff here on Organised Nonsense! Anime, comics, TV, we’ve got articles covering every category here. If you’re interested in hearing more of our thoughts on how Marvel’s cinematic outings are shaping up, feel free to check out Cathal’s article listing his top 5 MCU films!
Until the next time!