The movies within the Marvel Cinematic Universe have to walk a delicate tightrope between being unique and different while also being familiar. Their latest movie Doctor Strange succeeds in achieving this balance – bringing one of the most expansive worlds from Marvel Comics and doing it through the tried and tested Marvel style.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon whose skills surpasses his colleagues. However, after a car accident, Doctor Strange suffers irreversible nerve damage in his hands. Desperate to find a cure Strange spends the last of his money to get to Nepal and finds a secret order of people who protect the world from mystical threats. Under the tutelage of its leaders, The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) learns the mystic arts. But the world is under attack from a former master of the order, Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen), a madman willing to break time and reality for his own reasons.
2008’s Iron Man was a successful template for a Marvel movie especially for an origins story: ideas from Iron Man ended up being used in Thor and Ant-Man as well. Doctor Strange has even more in common with Iron Man because both leads are cocky men who after an event develops a disability which forces them to take up their superhero persona. Stephen Strange is the character most like Tony Stark, having similar personalities and like Iron Man and Ant-Man, Doctor Strange has to focus on the training to become a hero. There is plenty of humor that matches what has happened in previous MCU entries, Cumberbatch quips a lot like Robert Downey Jr. and Paul Rudd, as well as offering up some excellent visual gags. Doctor Strange is a movie of two halves, the first being Stephen Strange learning the mystic arts and the second being pretty much non-stop action.
Benedict Cumberbatch is the most obvious casting choice possible to play the superhero, and he did not disappoint. He had the perfect blend of brilliance and superiority complex. Cumberbatch already showed these skills in Sherlock who is hardly a modest character and the scenes when he was in the hospital made him seem like a more obnoxious version of Dr. Cox from Scrubs. Ejiofor as Mordo was cast in the mentor role, and he is clearly being made a part of the MCU for the long-term. Benedict Wong was also a memorable presence as Wong the librarian, being a funny folly to Doctor Strange. There was controversy with the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One because in the comics the character is a man of Asian descent – the film version is a Celtic woman. Despite this controversy, Swinton is an actress who gives Doctor Strange an extra bit of gravitas and made a great mentor for Cumberbatch’s Strange.
Due to the mystic and fantasy elements of the movie, it makes Doctor Strange work as a standalone as well as a Marvel movie. There are references to the wider franchise but these are more winks to the fans – newcomers to the MCU and the Doctor Strange character can easily follow the film. The setting is a little like Harry Potter, it’s a world within a world filled with magical objects and characters needing to learn how to master magic. The other influences on the movie are Inception and The Matrix – Doctor Strange is about different worlds and realities and how they can be manipulated. Like The Matrix, Doctor Strange shares an influence from Eastern Philosophy and Spiritualism with The Ancient One speaking in proverbs and giving Strange some tough lessons. Doctor Strange borrows some of Inception‘s visuals – the big moment being the action sequence in an alternative version of New York with the city being bent in many ways. It was like the Paris manipulation scene in Inception on steroids, and it was the action highlight of the film. Doctor Strange also comes across as the movie 2011’s Green Lantern should have been, showing an expensive world, fantastic visuals and unlike Green Lantern showing Strange work as a part of a team to save the world.
Doctor Strange also sees director Scott Derrickson and writer/former film critic C. Robert Cargill reunite since working on the horror movie Sinister. Together they make a visually spectacular superhero movie, especially when it shows the other dimensions and when characters showcase their powers. It was a movie apparently made by people who are fans of the MCU as well as sci-fi and fantasy in general.
As well as sticking to strengths of the Marvel formula that works. Doctor Strange also has the weaknesses – a weak villain and a generic love interest. Mads Mikkelsen plays the villain, something he has already done so in Casino Royale and Hannibal. He was linked to the MCU before – he was attached to play Malekith in Thor: The Dark World. Mikkelsen is a terrific actor and he was one of the better villains in the MCU but considering the MCU’s poor record (excluding Loki and The Red Skull) it was not much of an achievement. His best moment was a joke where he didn’t understand what Doctor Strange’s name was. Rachel McAdams’ role could easily have said ‘Love Interest’ in the screenplay. She was a perfectly charming enough presence but she hardly had anything to work with.
Fortunately Doctor Strange breaks the trend of unremarkable MCU scores by hiring Michael Giacchino, an A-list composer who has worked on Pixar films and the Star Trek and Mission Impossible series. He used male choirs through the movie, giving it a memorial, Tibetan song and it is the best score in an MCU movie since The Avengers.
Doctor Strange is another fantastic entry for the MCU, being one of the most visually spectacular movies from that series and is a strong origin story for the Sorcerer Supreme. It is one of the higher ranked MCU films.