Film Review: ‘Doctor Strange’

A Visually Gorgeous Origin Film with Cumberbatch playing Cumberbatch.

Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Ant-Man– these are the origin stories of a single character made within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, given the total number of films already released (13) and the bombardment of upcoming productions (7+), only four characters have had the limelight treatment, highlighting the quintessential role Doctor Strange plays in the Marvel Universe to its 5th solo man.

Dr. Stephen Vincent Strange was a wealthy, arrogant and incredibly skilled neurosurgeon, until an accident robbed him of his steady hands. Searching for a cure he eventually becomes a disciple of the mystic arts under the guidance of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and quickly learns of the greater evils he must face.

Undoubtedly, aside from the political correctness of Tilda Swinton in the role of an old Asian man, Doctor Strange is a well cast feature. With the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mads Mikkelsen, it almost feels like a British period drama, but written out and played with the Marvel formula.

It’s no surprise, that Cumberbatch with his astounding omnipresence nowdays fits the role of Strange like a glove. His best known role, Sherlock has some amazing resemblance with Strange – most apparently the in-your-face arrogance extreme to the point of self-denial, a sense of grandeur and the utmost belief that he is by far the greatest in what he does. The story then utilises this similarity, playing on the rise and fall of Strange’s egotism, in fact the plot almost revolves centrally on his self-esteem, progressing as Strange becomes more/less broken, much like the episodic story of Sherlock.

Undeniably too, Strange is indeed a broken man, talented in his work, nonetheless deeply troubled in his mind. The complexity of such a character usually cannot be and shouldn’t be explored in a linear superhero trope, but similar to Iron Man Tony Stark starrer Robert Downey Junior, Cumberbatch does what he could and comes up with a surprising amount of character exploration and perhaps even more importantly a very clear perspective of what, who and why Strange is what he is, delivering not only a charming surgeon but an endearing sorcerer.

Strange introduces us to a whole near aspect of the Marvel Universe, and with it an array of characters familiar to some and indifferent to others. Compared to other origin stories, Strange’s tale presents perhaps the most interesting display of supporting cast (aside from Guardians of the Galaxy), though Marvel has always heavily relied on a snarky protagonist to be the focus, Strange’s enemies and allies, while admitted there aren’t many, has blended well with himself and has much potential in the future.

Benedict Wong with his background in sci-fi and Marco Polo holds his own as the ever so serious yet comically presented guardian of the books Wong. Possessing a natural chemistry with Cumberbatch in their few interactions certainly helped to distinguish him from Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character Mordo; while both disciples of The Ancient One, in a film focused on Strange and mostly complimented by Tilda Swinton’s sorcerer supreme, these two somewhat convolutes and overlaps.

Swinton’s casting has engendered uproars, and that is not without reason seeing the Ancient One is supposedly an elder Asian Man. Though it could be said that indeed, Ancient’s identity is somewhat stereotypical as an old Eastern Master, but in actuality the style chosen to portray The Ancient could never be construed as offensive – traditional or clichéd it may be, but not nearly sufficient to compromise the original comic integrity by casting it differently.

That being said, it’s no blame to Swinton and her performance is in no way affected – the melancholy is there, the dominance and wisdom are all delivered quite well. The character could have worked either way, but likely to have been better by sticking to the original, to let Strange form a mentor’s attachment and chemistry with the Eastern Culture by using an Eastern actor.

The villain, Kaecillius played by Mads Mikkelsen whose critically acclaimed role of Hannibal brought much attention to the casting choice, laid a hopeful foundation once again that it can overturn Marvel’s ongoing streak of forgetful villains. He did not.

The core concept of the villain in Doctor Strange is similar in error with X-Men: Apocalypse; while certainly they are of nefarious nature and have great power, their doings never raise enough stakes. They are stationery, a threat rather than a danger; however menacing they may seem a sense of peril is never felt, there’s an overpowering certainty of the hero’s safety that Marvel just can’t seem to shake.

Known for its quips and somewhat unserious nature, the marvel way of making films have been vastly entertaining with its quick, smooth, and linear plot flow; however it does undermine the dramatics – it’s cool, even stunning, breathtaking for some but never quite thrilling enough.

There is an unfortunate overflowing of humour in Doctor Strange, it’s understandable for Iron Man or Spider-Man to constantly crack wise, but Strange always appeared more as a comparatively serious figure. It is nonetheless enjoyable, but in the way an Adam Sandler film is. Bottom line, one could have hoped for some restraint on the comical relieves.

On the other hand, the action choreography truly shines in the mystic arts where the visual, special effects as well as physical brawling combine to form some truly innovative and awe-inspiring actions – they aren’t convoluted but rather exciting. It’s the physics of The Lord of the Rings meeting the magic of Harry Potter, but in the constructs of Inception.

The Marvel formula whereupon the linear plot is complemented by expositions and minor setups is still utilised in Doctor Strange, but there is a central motif of ‘Time’ maintained throughout, which gives the film a centre to focus on, an immanent element to complete the puzzle which is quite different from many other more straightforwardly adventurous MCU films.

Director Scott Derrickson successfully delivers Doctor Strange in one piece with some additional Cumberbatch charm, tying the Marvel Universe with much magical effects and mystical flairs– enough to make me wonder why they had to mess with Thor first.

In theatres Australia wide from 27th of October

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MPAA Rating: PG-13

ACB Rating: M

Run Time: 115 min

-Henry Pan

An overzealous film critic wannabe, Henry Pan makes a trip down cinema lane once a week, in order to decrease his ever-increasing massive watch list. You can follow him and hear all about his rants on films, life and pet dogs on Twitter @LifeOfPan.