It isn’t as if Doctor Strange is breaking the Marvel formula in any real way – indeed, it’s adhering to it quite rigidly – but the fourteenth official entry in their cinematic universe is just different and fresh enough to invigorate it. Scott Derrickson’s movie is almost entirely absent of the bloat and over-stuffed continuity encumbering the most recent clutch, which even though they have been mostly entertaining and engaging, have also begun to feel rather tired and undifferentiated, beset by obligatory cross-fertilisation of characters, plots and MacGuffins. Indeed, it’s something of a disappointment when our titular character meets Thor in the (first) post-credits sequence, since it’s a signal he’s been cut down to their decidedly less faux-psychedelic and more pedestrian environs (and, while it’s a passive scene, it’s also suggestive that Taika Waititi’s direction may be tonally disposed towards the Superman III end of the superhero genre).
Perhaps the clearest sign that Doctor Strange is ready to embrace its chance to be different is the manner in which it eschews the traditional, over-grand climax. Even Civil War, which opted not to finish on the world (or a city) going to pot, came down to two (or three) guys duking it out. Here, in contrast, Derrickson et al are confident enough to conclude with their hero being frightfully clever (well, relatively; in Marvel movie terms, he’s being frightfully clever) as he engineers a dose of Chronic Hysteresis-style time-looping on big bad Dark Dimension entity Dormammu, who is poised to engulf the Earth.
As such, Stephen Strange has already arrived too late to save Tokyo, his attempts to engineer a temporal reversal via the Eye of Agamatto (revealed as an Infinity Stone, but unobtrusively so) being cut short before fully enacted. The “turn back time” device has been used before in a movie climax (not least Superman: The Movie, and the imitating Doctor Who TV movie), but generally it leaves a feeling of dissatisfaction, cheating, or cop-out. Here, Strange’s facility for manipulating time has been introduced early on, recurring as an element separating the material perception of reality (highlighted astrally during The Ancient One’s deathbed discussion with Strange), and it’s merely supporting strata to the icing on the cake… which is also derivative.
Yes, one might point to the picture as simply lifting Tom Cruise’s comically-accented Edge of Tomorrow tribulations, but even if that was the inspiration (or Doctor Who’s Heaven Sent, one of the precious few – Mummy on the Orient Express being another – half-decent episodes of the Capaldi era), Derrickson is at least co-opting commendable fare. Mostly, it just makes for an immensely satisfying means of facing down a nigh-on omnipotent force.
That Dormammu keeps its side of the bargain came as something of a surprise, particularly as I’m so resigned to Marvel’s requirement for butt-numbing over-extension of their movies, far past their most suitable duration; it’s a pleasant change that the picture is willing to forgo a wearisomely pixelated tsunami climax (not that there isn’t a preceding smorgasbord of effects anyway). At a tidy 115 minutes, Doctor Strange is hopefully the shape of things to come, but I wouldn’t count on it (I suppose Ant-Man also clocked in under two hours, but as a comedy it should have been closer to 100 minutes).
Mention of Dormammu (who’s most disappointing aspect is that it’s rendered as unadventurously floating head) also raises Doctor Strange’s distinctive approach to questions of ethics and morality. We’ve seen the thorny conundrums concerning self-appointed use of power playing out between Captain America and Iron Man, emphasising moral grey areas (sometimes to the point of fudging what has set up as an opportunity to give its characters depth). Strange appears to be built on moral greyness, so much so that it could almost be regarded as one in the eye for the traditional, polarising light/dark, good/evil, positive/negative magical/spiritual realms of Harry Potter, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.
Wiki-ing the Ancient One, it appears the character’s drawing on the power of the Dark Dimension to prolong her longevity is unique to the movie, and it would be interesting to learn the thinking behind this decision; the suggestion appears to be that a limited life span is within the bounds of the natural order, and so to extend it would require using dark rather than light magic. Such compromise on the part of the Ancient One, in claiming her choice is in the service of a greater good, is suggestive of a “power corrupts” element, for all that she appears to be entirely Yoda-ish in her sense of balance and discrimination. We can’t help but side with Mordo and Kaecilius in recognising the hypocrisy of her decision, and one hopes there’s an intention to address this later in the series, as it oughtn’t to be taken on (Strange’s) trust. The writers have set up a moral quandary on the Ancient One’s say-so (that she needed to utilise this energy: did she?) yet provide variations of those who flat-out use the Dark Dimension for evil aims (Kaecilius) or who are so rigid and inflexible that they feel betrayed by her duplicity (Mordo).
Charitably, this may be intentional, since her vouch-safer Strange is seen to exhibit a similar capacity for compromise. The question is whether there’s a line to be drawn, and where that line is; the movie series mentioned above would suggest any hint of dabbling in the dark arts is a slippery slope of no return. The Ancient One emphasises the need for selflessness and letting go of ego, but it’s Strange’s ethical weakness, that of a man who took on patients to advance his career, rather than being guided by those most in need, that remains later but differently manifested, as a capacity for malleability and willingness to use forbidden magic (messing with time) if he judges that the ends justify the means.
In this regard, it’s disappointing that, while Chiwetel Ejiofor imbues Mordo with subtlety that isn’t on the page, the picture codas on starkly villainous terrain as he incapacitates Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) on the grounds that there are too many sorcerers in the world (and more specifically because he regards Pangborn’s self-serving use of magic as profane). Mordo has a legitimate beef, so why not let that legitimate beef play out sympathetically rather than instantly go to the easy option? Again, I don’t really know the comics, but Mordo appears to have been a bad seed from the start (with that kind of name how could he be otherwise?), provisioned with a backstory where he becomes jealous of the favour with which the Ancient One held Strange when he was still just a boy. It’s a shame they’ve gone to the trouble of starting with something more nuanced here, but have then (apparently) rushed to throw it out the window.
I can quite see why picking up with Strange as an arrogant surgeon appealed in terms of origin story. It hearkens back to Marvel’s greatest success, Tony Stark, with the less than whiter-than-whiter protagonist on a clear arc/journey of discovery. It’s enormous fun to watch Strange’s progress, from self-involved and struggling (being left to fend for himself on Mount Everest is a lovely touch), with his flashes of being a fast learner, getting it wrong during fights but thinking on his feet (be they on the ground, wall, ceiling or with nothing whatsoever beneath them). When Mordo observes ‘You’re not just any magician”, it has the kind of charge it ought to, because we’re willing him to succeed rather than assuming it as a fait accompli; Derrickson and Jon Spaihts and C Robert Cargill get that part exactly right.
On the subject of Strange’s “noble” change of direction, though. Well, yeah…. Kind of. Yes, he’s no longer overtly into ego-driven self-gratification, and is working for the greater good, but that path of service conveniently involves him being able to do much cooler shit than he ever could with his now gammy hands. It hardly feels like he has made a sacrifice, and so it’s a bit of a cheat, because Strange’s reward for a training/learning montage isn’t merely self (or soul)-realisation, it’s unlimited ability to play with the fabric of the universe. An ability that comes super-quick. Sure, it’s cool that he’s willing to lock himself in an eternal struggle with Dormammu, but even then, it’s a bit glib; it’s a gambit he knows has a likely outcome of his prevailing. Strange has only become “selfless” at the end in so much as he’s been enshrined as such narratively; we are told he is selfless. There’s no emotionally exacting dimension to it, so it’s almost an arbitrary fulfilment of the hero’s journey.
Not that I’m especially complaining; I just don’t see any great justification for claiming Strange is distinguished or meritorious in his path. As for the actor personifying him, while Cumberbatch is entirely reliable, professional (although his accent is Exhibit A in English players hoping they can pass themselves off as American by virtue of a throaty growl) and hits all the necessary beats of comedy and drama, he doesn’t knock the role out of the park the way Robert Downey Jr did with Stark (or the way it looks like Tom Holland has with Peter Parker). Accent aside, this is very familiar territory for him, and even Strange’s arrogance pales in comparison to his Sherlock. I’d have favoured a more daring choice, and certainly one that could pull off a better fake beard.
Everyone else is very much doing their best with standard types. Ejiofor I’ve mentioned, and he brings the goods effortlessly in emphasising Mordo’s underlying intensity and inner pain. Mads Mikkelsen is likewise a trooper in making much of that bane of the Marvel cinematic universe – the underwritten villain (Kaecilius). He isn’t really given enough for us to see recognise his motivations (his point of view with regard to the Ancient One is clear enough, but that’s it), so hopefully his extraction by Dormammu won’t hamper a rematch, but with more substance next time.
Whatever the shortcomings of characterisation, on one level it’s simply fun to see actors of this calibre bouncing off each other in this kind of movie, particularly when the bad guy gets a comic moment (“You don’t know how to use that, do you?” Kaecilius asks Stephen of a glowing magic pot he has just picked up, mid-fight). Benedict Wong’s natural timing also ensures some rather laboured repartee with Strange (Wong’s singular name, his lack of levity) actually play. Michael Stuhlbarg is rather wasted in the supporting subordinate doctor role while Rachel McAdams fulfils the thankless obligation of the non-super hero who also isn’t comic support (so, like Rosario Dawson in Daredevil, she practices medicine).
The ethnicity issue in terms of casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One has been much discussed elsewhere, so there’s little point following suit; suffice to say, there was probably a better solution than the one reached. Swinton’s as commanding as she always is, and as always is a pleasure to see, be it in an indie or a blockbuster, even if there’s little that’s distinctive in her character’s employment of platitudes and ancient wisdom.
In terms of where this picture doesn’t go – almost as much as its moral focus – the avoidance of any mention of reincarnation is curious, since it would surely be part and parcel of the belief systems Strange and co inhabit. Perhaps it’s a case of Disney hedging its bets (I don’t know how prominently reincarnation figures in the comics), wary of falling foul of Christian audiences, or of Chinese censors (it would be interesting to know how touch-and-go it was for Strange getting a release there, and it’s notable how Tibet has been conspicuously substituted with Nepal, appeasement-wise).
Yet the embrace of moral greyness in depiction of magic (coming from Derrickson, a committed Christian, no less) is curious in that regard. Interviewed at the time of the release of his last movie, he commented “If we’re not compelled to gain a deeper understanding of good and evil, how can we make the world a better place?”; he’s clearly struggling with this in terms the polarities presented both in the Marvel universe and his religious convictions, which makes for engaging but also conflicting impulses in his movies (his conception of evil is particularly interesting in the piece, suggestive he definitely needs a strong scriptwriter to aid him in expressing in his ideas).
While I don’t generally seek out post-converted movies, this is one I actually wish I had seen in 3D; Derrickson rises to the challenge of an effects-laden blockbuster as few Marvel employees have (previously, The Day the Earth Stood Still remake was his highest peak) with a series of cascading, eye-popping delights. The Matrix/Inception-esque, Escher-esque folding cityscapes may be nothing mind-blowing given the various visualisations of such concepts over the last two decades, but in context of a fully-fledged action sequence they’re frequently a giddy wonder.
Elsewhere, some of the doors of perception Strange breaks down – Stan Lee is reading Huxley’s book in his cameo – including the first time he exits his body, shooting down a 2001 stargate and on into a kaleidoscopic, fractal multiverse, or touching down on a purple, red and green Dark Dimension asteroid (for such a negative place, it has some pretty groovy colours, man), an effective rendering of ’60s Marvel comics, may not send the picture into the DEEPLY weird territory some might have hoped for, but it’s still far more than one could reasonably expect from this type of movie.
Added to which – and this is not to be underestimated, given the Russo brothers’ competent but hardly invigorating action; while it’s clear they were handed Infinity Wars because they’re cheap and reliable, no-frills hires have become a hallmark of the MCU – Derrickson delivers a series of well-composed, commendably coherent action set pieces and creative fight sequences, as Strange dukes it out in astral form, throwing himself and others through magical spatial gateways, across those aforementioned cityscapes, up buildings, down buildings (there’s a lovely moment where, in a now-vertical corridor, Strange uses his noggin, ejecting one of his adversaries into a desert by simply letting go), through the Mirror Universe and, in the finale, a pursuit through a recomposing Tokyo, during which Mads is immersed in a wall and Benedict disinterred from one. Sure, maybe there are one too many shots of Kaecilius and his pursuers running down a crazy street, but that’s small beans.
Doctor Strange’s humour is at its best when it derives from its visual audacity; indeed, when it goes for the standard, baseline Marvel quippery, the results frequently flounder or feel out of place. Pretty much anything involving Strange’s cloak of levitation is a hit (a Best Supporting Garment Oscar nomination in the offing?), be it pulling its designated owner in the opposite direction he wants to go, or attacking a bad guy of its own recognisees.
In terms of cinematography, the picture is nothing ground-breaking (cinematographer Ben Davis returns to the Marvel fold after Guardians of the Galaxy and Age of Ultron); it’s Derrickson’s oversight that makes this distinctive. Michael Giacchino scores his first Marvel effort, and it’s more memorable than most of their scores, perfectly respectable, but not up to the best of what he’s done in the past (a Strange theme doesn’t leap out, and really, if there was an opportunity for something psychedelically-inspired, he missed the boat).
Hopefully Derrickson will be back for the sequel; his rep as a decent horror director took a tumble with the sloppy mess that was Deliver Us from Evil, but this surely propels him back into everyone’s good books. He’s also keenly engaged philosophically, which a character like this needs.
Will Doctor Strange be as big as Marvel’s last few offerings? I guess it depends whether its unique furrow is as favourably received as the more standard, combustible, action-orientated fare; as an out-of-the-gate franchise-starter, it isn’t quite as audience-friendly as Guardians of the Galaxy. But, given the popularity of other magical franchises there’s no reason it shouldn’t make a mint. I didn’t have high expectations, since both the central casting and the trailers’ visuals seemed derivative, so I came away very pleasantly surprised. The only question is whether they can keep Strange sufficiently distinctive; slotting him in with the other Marvel alumni seems like a recipe for dilution, and they need to be going more, not less, outré.