Like the world its protagonist comes to inhabit, it’s safe to say that Marvel’s fourteenth entry in its on-going cinematic universe exists on more than one level.
At its most basic level, Doctor Strange is a straight-forward and frankly formulaic origin story. A wealthy and arrogant genius suffers a grievous injury, the solution to which results in his gaining not only fantastic abilities, but a new outlook on life and sense of responsibility. You can’t even distinguish Stephen Strange from Tony Stark by facial hair. That being said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with sticking to a formula, what matters is how well that formula is executed, and that’s where Doctor Strange steps up.
The movie clocks in at a relatively compact 116 minutes, with the result that the plot shifts along nicely, with minimal extraneous material. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers well in the lead role, catching Strange’s initial arrogance, subsequent desperation and eventual growth with some aplomb. The supporting cast backs him up nicely, most notably Chiwetel Ejiofor as rule-bound fellow student Mordo and Benedict Wong as taciturn drill instructor / librarian Wong. Tilda Swinton largely transcends accusations of whitewashing with her enjoyably mercurial turn as Strange’s instructor, the Ancient One (and may well have saved the character from a bad case of stereotyping). Rachel McAdams feels a little under-served as Strange’s fellow surgeon (and former girlfriend), but provides helpful grounding for a decidedly mystical character. Finally, Mads Mikkelsen’s antagonist Kaecilius is unlikely to go down in history as one of the great villains, but nevertheless proves compelling as an intelligent and capable man, secure in the righteousness of his cause, all driven by Mikkelsen’s own considerable charisma.
As far back as its first issues in the early sixties, the comic book has been noted for madly trippy visuals depicting the various adventures that the good Doctor finds himself on, and the movie pulls no punches in following suit, leading to some quite remarkable visuals as buildings fold, shift and turn, gravity and time become options and otherworldly dimensions are visited. It’s easily Marvel’s best work in this area, with only Guardians of the Galaxy maybe coming close, and has the side-effect of making this one of the rare movies where seeing it in 3D is something I would actively recommend.
The movie deals with some fairly dark material in places; unusually for a Marvel origin story, which normally deal with relatively small and personal stakes, the end of the world is in the offing, but the script builds in enough humour to offset this, with most characters getting some snarking in at some point. For a Marvel movie at this point in their ongoing masterplan, it’s also unusually standalone; while the Avengers are mentioned directly and a couple of asides appear to reference other aspects of the MCU, nobody from any prior movie appears in the main body of the film. Not that much of a shock, given that this is the first movie to step into the mystical side of things, but it gives the movie a certain freshness.
For my money, this is one of Marvel’s best movies, combining a solid script, strong performances, extraordinary visuals and some genuinely inventive action sequences. I can’t see myself not seeing this again at least once, and would strongly recommend it to anyone with any vague interest in the genre.