“Might I offer you some advice? Forget everything that you know,” quotes secondary protagonist Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in the new Marvel Cinematic Universe film, Doctor Strange. Fourteen movies in, the ever expanding MCU needs refreshment after the large scale superhero clash in the previous Captain America: Civil War. I had some degree of trepidation walking into this one as I think that this series has become lazy with its own formula. Thankfully, I can say that this film does not fall victim to the constraints imposed by its franchise.
A master neurosurgeon, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), injures himself in a car crash leaving his hands permanently disabled. After numerous unsuccessful surgeries, he ventures to Nepal, taking refuge in the secret monastery, Kamar-Taj. He trains in the mystic arts under The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and newfound companion, Mordo, in hopes of improving his condition. During this, he discovers that a renegade sorcerer, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), plots to overthrow their society and subjugate the world under his ideals.
Doctor Strange’s most notable aspect lies in its well crafted effects. Don’t let the bland orange/blue poster deceive you into thinking that it would be uninspired in that department. Director Scott Derrickson crafts a resplendent universe that feels larger than the MCU itself. Under his direction, times lapses, realities bend, buildings fold, surfaces become twisted, and characters fight each other, while warping through alternate dimensions and vivid seas of purples, greens, and reds. These Inception-grade effects and action induce a feeling of distortion, which Derrickson intends. Fortunately, he doesn’t abuse the special effects, for he also gives the story proper attention.
Dr. Strange’s quest for self-redemption heavily engages in world-building, yet doesn’t force it. Marvel movies (and their DC counterparts) partake in this habit of prioritizing universe construction over delivering a satisfying narrative, but Doctor Strange does it so naturally and in such a manner that still keeps it relevant to the plot. It also feels more self-contained, with minimal references to the MCU and almost no set up for future films.
Though the film astonishes visually, it also more than services its characters well. Cumberbatch impresses as the the titular character, undergoing a compelling transformation from repugnant narcissist to altruistic protector. Though he is unlikable at first, he becomes more of a sympathetic figure as his character unravels. The insecurities and intellect that Cumberbatch so convincingly displays make Strange more investing. He shares similarities with Tony Stark in terms of personality, but doesn’t become a carbon copy of him.
While Cumberbatch does headline the flick, the supporting cast does just as good of a job. Ejiofor plays Mordo with pinpoint anger and conviction, showing unwavering dedication to his ideals to a fault. He and Cumberbatch develop a good camaraderie, eventually taking an emotional toll on you given what occurs in the third act (I won’t spoil it). Tilda Swinton also does well with the material she’s given, commanding the screen as the omnipotent head sorcerer. I will say that some of her lines veer more towards delivering exposition or overlong monologues on spirituality and time, but Swinton’s tremendous screen presence makes her pompous dialogue all the more bearable. Even a minor supporting character in Wong (Benedict Wong), steals his respective scenes with his stone-faced look and deadpan mannerisms.
This adventure has fun with itself and never becomes too self-serious. However, it sometimes chooses to have a little too much of it. Obviously, I don’t want to enter spoiler territory, but the film mistimes some of its jokes or comedic instances. Occasionally, they either don’t hit their intended beat or flat out disturb the tone of more serious scenes. None of them were overly flagrant, but they did partially remove me from the movie at those points. I’d say that it’s due more to script than direction since some of the dialogue comes off as pedestrian.
Mads Mikkelsen works his hardest with the material given. He plays great villain roles, most notably Bond villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. As Kaecilius, however, he neither has much time on screen nor receives ample development, which disappoints me. The villain is not insufferable by any measure as he does have an interesting backstory and some nice juxtaposition with the main protagonist. However, the story sidelines him, making this character more of a missed opportunity rather than another insufferable MCU baddie.
Despite some issues concerning the villain and script, Doctor Strange thrives from a Derrickson’s strong directorial effort, a visually immaculate world, and dedicated performances from its cast. I hope to see this particular component of the MCU further explored in its inevitable sequel.