Eight years after the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the films produced by Marvel Studios are delving deep into the possibilities that the comics provide. We’ve had plenty of superpowered beings, cool technologies, and even ventured off Earth to look at the wider universe. Now Doctor Strange adds a new dimension (quite literally) to the MCU, by exploring a force that is outright referred to as magic. This kind of magic isn’t “just there”, however; just as how Thor said that where he comes from, magic and science are one and the same, it is placed in context with the universe’s rules and explanations are given. Its existence isn’t difficult to accept, and it will be interesting to see what role magic plays if and when Doctor Strange encounters the Avengers.
Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a genius neurosurgeon, who apparently still isn’t smart enough to realise that you shouldn’t use your phone while driving. (The end credits even include a statement to this effect, to hammer the point home.) As a result, he suffers a car accident which severely damages his hands and effectively ends his career, leaving him a broken man. His maniacal search for treatment eventually leads him to Nepal, and a collective of sorcerers led by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who agrees to instruct Strange in the mystic arts. This goes well beyond Strange being able to use his hands again, however: a rogue sorcerer named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is planning a ritual that could result in Earth’s destruction, and Strange is soon forced to take his place on the front line.
In terms of production design, this is a very bizarre film that takes its premise of moving beyond the physical world and really runs with it. Action scenes take place on a variety of different levels: besides simply zapping each other with magical relics, combatants fight soul-to-soul on the astral plane, bend reality in the mirror dimension, and even indulge in a little time manipulation. The special effects used are brilliant, such as when Strange first enters the astral plane and is tossed through a disorientating kaleidoscope of twisted images. The mirror dimension sequences also involve defying gravity and twisting the environment in different directions in a way that brings to mind Inception, but even more mind-boggling. The central plot, however, is rather more generic; when you break it down, it’s really just another basic bad guy who’s threatening to destroy the world and has to be stopped. There appears to be potential for ambiguity when Kaecilius actually explains his motivations to Strange, but this still ends up falling flat; and the real threat, the malevolent god-like Dormammu, doesn’t actually appear properly until the climax.
Rather better than the plot is Stephen Strange’s personal character arc. The story of a character who has grown arrogant from success and needs to learn humility is one that has been told many times before, but this film provides a fresh take on it by delving into Strange’s core motivations and providing its own context for the idea of looking beyond personal desires. Benedict Cumberbatch handles the character very well, making him sympathetic despite his flaws, though it feels strange in itself to hear him with an American accent. (At one point, he still says “Yup” in the same way as Sherlock Holmes.) My favourite performance in the film, however, was Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One; she’s in the classic role of the wise, mysterious mentor figure who has lived for hundreds of years, but manages to give the character an actual personality and charisma, rather than being distant and spouting cryptic platitudes as you might expect. Like most Marvel films, this one has just the right amount of light-heartedness, with the personality clashes between Strange and the other sorcerers providing much of the humour. Sometimes it comes along unexpectedly: when the Ancient One abandons Strange on the slopes of Mount Everest to test his ability to make a portal, it looks pretty serious until another character comments, “Oh, not again.”
With its brilliant production design and special effects making up for a mediocre story, Doctor Strange retains much of what makes other MCU films work, and is another solid and commendable installment in the franchise. Rating: 4/5.