Doctor Strange

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Reviewed by 01-Jan-17

Whilst this is certainly a lesser Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, it’s still okay.

These days, I seem to begin just about every review of a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie by saying “I didn’t have too many hopes for this movie, but it turned out okay.” One day, probably pretty soon, the MCU will deliver an all-out turkey, something that’s as bad as Fant4stic or X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But Doctor Strange is not that movie.

(Spoilers follow, of course.)

I was definitely worried that it might be that movie. For a start, there’s the concept. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has so far been a place of rationality, with even the Asgardians, actual gods in the comics, changed to possessors of extremely advanced science. Doctor Strange was a challenge to that, risking undoing the whole foundation of the MCU. On the other hand, to do an overly rationalized Strange would raise the inevitable question – what’s the point? In the end, director Scott Derrickson, screenwriter Jon Spaihts (rewriting Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer’s original screenplay to such a degree that the latter two don’t get a final credit), and Derrickson’s co-writer C. Robert Cargill manage to carry this off pretty well, with magic and spells as a deeper understanding of the way the multiverse works, rather than a challenge to it.

And then there was the lead actor. When he’s convinced of the value of the material, as in the first two series of Sherlock, or his Hamlet at the Barbican, Benedict Cumberbatch is a fantastic actor. But there are times when he doesn’t seem to believe in what he’s doing, when he gives the distinct impression of phoning his performance in, and his work in the fantastic genre often seems to fall into that category – see his turns as the Angel Islington in the BBC’s radio adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, or as Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness. So I was worried about his Strange. It turns out I worried too much. No-one would claim that this is among his greatest performances, and his American accent wobbles a bit at times, but at least he’s not giving the impression he’d rather be somewhere else playing something different. His Stephen Strange begins as a bit of a vari-speeded Tony Stark, but it comes out okay, and he can carry off the essential nobility of the Sorceror Not Yet Supreme. (Stan Lee and Steve Ditko – who is uncredited in this movie – began the comics with Strange as Sorceror Supreme, with his training long in the past. A neat point is that the creators of this movie, having started with Strange pre-Mystic Arts, recognise that there’s not enough time in the movie for him to rise to the very top.)

Cumberbatch is ably supported by others in the cast. Tilda Swinton is having a lot of fun in the role of the Ancient One, though whilst I approve of the genderswap for the role, I can’t approve of the whitewashing. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Not-Yet-A-Baron Mordo is a more subtle and sophisticated characterisation than the original, as created by Lee and Ditko; his descent into villainy by the end of the movie is inevitable, but properly motivated, and would be a surprise to anyone not familiar with the comics characters. And Benedict Wong’s Wong transforms the original Asian manservant of the comics.

Doctor Strange movie review running

Trust me, this is much less silly in the actual movie than it looked in the trailer.

Other characters are less effective. Mads Mikkelsen gets even less time on screen to make an impact than he does in Rogue One, and his Kaecilius ends up as one of the MCU’s least interesting villains (one suspects the role was larger when he signed on). Rachel McAdams doesn’t fare much better as Strange’s love interest Christine Palmer.

I did like the way that the movie reminds you that it is part of the MCU, with an early shot of Avengers Tower amongst the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and a mid-credits appearance by Thor.

One of the elements that has attracted much praise are the visual effects. They’re certainly clever, but where the city-bending and angle-shifting had real impact in Inception, here it seems somehow less memorable, perhaps because it’s so fussy and detailed that it ends up seeming rather overdone.

Overall though, whilst this is certainly a lesser MCU movie, it’s still okay – nowhere near as bad as Incredible Hulk, for instance. Let’s see if they screw up Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Also, there’s a nice final message in the credits about driving without due care and attention.

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