Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Dr Strange

(M) ★★★★

Director: Scott Derrickson.

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton.

"And for my next trick - pretty colours."

MARVEL Studios is becoming increasingly like Evel Knievel – with every successful stunt it lands, it makes the next one bigger and more difficult.

First it was Asgardian gods with faux-Shakespearean overtones – no worries. America’s #1 shield-wielding patriot? Piece of cake. How about sticking every hero together in one film? Easy. What about a bunch of sci-fi weirdos no one has ever heard of, including a raccoon and a talking tree? Nailed it. Hell, they even did an amazing job with Ant-Man.

(If they keep up this kind of bravado, they might even dare to lead a film with a female superhero someday….)

The studio’s latest trick is the little-known Dr Strange – a crucial character in the Marvel comic books, but one whose popularity peaked in the ‘60s and ‘70s when he became a favourite with college students dabbling in psychedelic drugs and eastern mysticism.

Strange (Cumberbatch) is an arrogant yet brilliant neurosurgeon whose hands are left severely damaged by a car accident. His quest to regain his abilities leads him to a Nepalese temple and The Ancient One (Swinton) – a guru who opens Strange’s eyes to the world of magic and the constant mystical threats facing the earth.

This brings Strange into conflict with The Ancient One’s former student Kaecilius (Mikkelsen), forcing Strange to put aside his doubts, team up with new pals Mordo (Ejiofor) and Wong (Wong), and earn his stripes as a sorcerer.

Dr Strange is another leap successfully landed by Marvel. It makes its magical mumbo jumbo visually dynamic and doesn’t disappear up its own mythology, sprinkling its exposition among pacy editing and storytelling. The film bears all the strengths (and, to be fair, weaknesses) of the other origin stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), while pulling off some remarkable visuals, including a couple of mind-blowing sequences that are unlike anything we’ve seen on the big screen before.

Like his heroic MCU predecessors, Stephen Strange is a realistically flawed and well drawn character. Prior to his awakening, he’s like Dr House (accent included) but without the barely buried empathy – pre-magic Strange is the most unlikable figure in the MCU to date. It’s a credit to Cumberbatch’s performance and the finely tuned script that Strange doesn’t entirely lose his ego post-transformation and that we are still willing to follow him on his initial journey even though he’s a total jerk.

After 14 MCU films its not surprising there’s some repetition here – Strange’s journey to Sorceror Supreme is similar to Tony Stark’s resurrection as Iron Man (smug, arrogant rich guy suffers horrific injury, has spiritual awakening, is reborn as superhero). There are also the “cosmic colours” of Thor, Guardians Of The Galaxy and even Ant-Man’s microverse, which give the film a similar look to some of its fore-bearers, and the slightly forgettable villain (one of the MCU's biggest failings to date). While Mikkelsen does his best with Kaecilius, it’s another example of the MCU sending out great actors in cool make-up without furnishing them with a killer bad guy to inhabit (Loki and Ultron are the exceptions).

But Dr Strange is predominantly another demonstration of what Marvel does best. The script is wonderfully paced, the characters largely avoid being one-note, the casting is spot-on, and it has a neat sense of humour that helps diffuse the seriousness (although this is not as funny as other MCU outings).

Where this film really excels is in its visuals. It’s a rare movie these days that offers you something you’ve never seen before, but Dr Strange has a couple of moments that are pretty mind-blowing. Among a 2001-like journey through the multiverse that will have stoners embracing this film like their ‘60s counterparts did with the comics and some Inception-like world-folding (turned up to 11) is a fight scene that takes place in the midst of a world where time is flowing backwards. It’s impressively staged and a mean feat of CG wizardry, but it’s also infused with humour and tension.

Dr Strange’s stunning visuals, pacy plot and great casting overcomes its deficiencies. Best of all, it’s place in the MCU and enjoyment factor means you’ll be keen to see what Strange happenings occur next.

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