Doctor Strange review – a solid MCU entry reinforced by a vibrant and textured mythology
Last night we got the privilege to attend a Doctor Strange ‘fan screening’ in London’s Leicester Square. This opened with Empire’s Chris Hewitt bringing on stage director Scott Derrickson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mad Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams and Benedict Wong, to introduce the film. It was a nice surprise, given the premier was listed as being on the other side of London. Cumberbatch took the lead in introducing the film with a short speech (a snippet of which is below). Please be aware that our review does contain moderate spoilers.
— chris (@wherenoneexist) October 25, 2016
Marvel craft new slices of their MCU so often now that we’re served up a handful of films each and every year, all of which play within a similar formula. Where sequels for characters like Thor are arguably a simpler affair (you have a pre-established universe to build upon), films like the upcoming Black Panther will be much harder to pull off. Yet even Black Panther is aided by the titular character having appeared (to positive feedback) in Captain America: Civil War.
Even more difficult still was creating a film out of Doctor Strange. Firstly, the titular hero and all of the characters within the film have never once appeared in the MCU, which means you’re playing with zero familiarity. To make things more complex still, this is a psychedelic story that about complex multiverses, bending reality, astral projection and universe-consuming entities. In short, it’s a little more “out there” and heavy than the MCU is used to dealing with. All of these obstacles could have made director/writer Scott Derrickson and his co-writers Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill take a heavy fall here, but instead they soar past these hurdles and provide what we found to be a solid MCU entry.
In all honesty, the thing that impressed us the most about Marvel’s latest MCU addition was the vibrant and thought-provoking multiverse mythology that Derrickson and co thickly quilt the narrative in. Quite quickly into the film The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) completely lays out the state of affairs for both Stephen Strange and for the audience; there are an infinite amount of universes – some of them benevolent and some of them terrible – from which the Sorcerers draw the their magic, and one particular entity (Dormammu) wishes to consume all of the universes into his own.
It’s a premise that in the hands of other writers might have felt too opaque, but Derrickson and co paint a very vibrant and vivid picture of this mythology. They achieve this in two ways; firstly by physically hurling Strange through a handful of these other universes, which gives us a glimpse of their diversity and magnificence. Secondly, the motivations of the villains are throughly explored throughout the film, which gives them a really weight (further reinforcing the mythological construct).
These are villains whose plight you can sympathise with; all they want is for our universe and world to be consumed by Dormammu, which sounds like a terrible thing, but Dormammu’s universe is one that exists outside of time. This means – as Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) reasons – that death doesn’t exist within Dormammu’s universe, which means a form of immortality is achievable there. “Time is in insult” Kaecilius wonderfully claims, going on to explain how merging with Dormammu’s universe will free our world from death. We love the boldness of his character and Mads, for us, can never do any wrong.
In this respect, the films provides some very believable villains, which you don’t often find in the MCU. We’re not talking villains of the quality you’ll find in Netflix Marvel (which are far superior to anything that the MCU can muster up), but these are still strong characters. Dormammu looks very impressive and is far more interesting than Thanos has ever been shown to be (so far).
Kaelicius stands out in so many ways, one of our favourites of which is simply how he reacts when confronted with his old allies (who are now enemies to him). There’s a great quality to seeing two people at odds who used to be close friends. Each time Kaecilius finds another of his old allies standing ready to fight him he’ll greet them by saying something like: “I see they’ve put you in charge of guarding this place” or “you’re on the wrong side of history”. His willingness to kill his old allies is cold and relentless (as are the ways in which he kills them), but he’s doing it all because he truly believes Dormammu’s existence to be a better one for our world. Essentially, we sympathise with his endgame, if not his methods.
Despite all of this astral intrigue, the film does hold an enormous amount of humour. Whether you view this as a benefit or a detriment is your own call. We know that the majority of viewers enjoy this approach, but I personally find that it detracts from the overall quality of films that would be far better be served if they were treated with more seriousness (like Netflix Marvel treats them).
The jokes comes thick and fast, and the audience we watched this with certainly enjoyed them. There are, however, one or two moments that very likely aren’t intended to be funny, but the audience laughed at them anyway, which is certainly a detriment to the film (to be laughed at when you are intending to put across a serious moment). For example, when Kaecilius is trapped in a restrictive device by Strange, Mads undertakes this rigid robot-like movement, as the device forces him into submission, and we heard loud laughs of a derisive tone, both here and at a couple of other points in the film.
Visually, the film takes an approach that very much reminds of Inception (no doubt an influence here), with the twisting and turning of buildings into complex formations that endlessly shift and flow, which our characters then have to navigate (or fall into nothingness, before find something new to grasp onto). Benedict Cumberbatch works as Strange, but we did find his acting a little shy of believable a couple of times in the film. Whereas in Sherlock he’s entirely on his acting game, so perhaps it was the unfamiliarity of this content or the joke-laden dialogue that didn’t settle so well with his acting style. McAdams is as expert as ever, in a role that is very similar to Netflix Marvel’s Claire Temple – someone who our hero drops in on every time a severe wound needs healing and who finds a way to help them despite her busy nursing role.
As expected of an MCU film, there are a couple of end credit scenes. One is mid-way through the end credits and the other is right at the end of the end credits, so make sure that you stay until the very last second. If you don’t want to know what these two scenes hold then stop reading here (spoilers ahead).
The mid-way scene features – as many might have guessed – Thor (given Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok being on the horizon). In this scene Doctor Strange sits down with Thor and expresses his concern for Thor and Loki intruding in his world. While also magically filling up Thor’s jug of beer every time he downs it, Strange asks what Thor is after. Thor tells him that he’s trying to find Odin, which spurs Strange to offer his help, providing that Thor leaves after Odin is found. This means that Doctor Strange will no doubt be in Thor: Ragnarok, which is another interesting contribution to what is already a very promising set-up (between Waititi’s inclusion and Planet Hulk being tackled, we can’t wait to see the outcome).
The final scene, after the end credits, shows Strange’s apparent ally Mordo approaching Jonathan Pangborn (the man who channels magic to keep himself walking). Mordo steals the magic from Pangborn, causing him to lose the use of his legs once more, all implying that Mordo is perhaps shifting sides, just like Kaecilius once did. It’s a really crucial set-up for what’s to come and it pains us that so many audience members will leave before they realise this scene is there.
Doctor Strange is a little too heavy on the humour (but if that’s what you like, you’ll be in your element), which only serves to distract a little from the film’s true strength, which is its vibrant and textured multiverse mythology. This is the true backbone of the film, serving to fuel believable villains, while at the same time posing thought-provoking questions about the nature of reality and what might truly lay out there in the cosmos. This is one of the more solid MCU entries, which is all the more commendable given how complex this subject matter was to pull off. Make certain you don’t miss it.
Image credits: Marvel