This review may contain minor spoilers.
The strangest thing about Marvel’s foray into the inter-dimensional is how securely it stands as its own film. Too often are their recent films bogged down in heavy-handed links to what has preceded and what will proceed, to the point where they have felt like extended trailers, founded in nothing but Infinity Stones. Here, the greatest trick pulled is that ‘Doctor Strange’ effectively ignores the super-baggage of a decade, leaving room for an endlessly surprising and gleefully bonkers spectacle.
The ever-dependable Benedict Cumberbatch is Stephen Strange, a hotshot New York neurosurgeon, channelling the arrogance of House and the bachelor lifestyle of Bruce Wayne. In an admittedly rushed opening segment, we see Strange belittle his colleagues, flanter with Dr. Palmer (Rachel McAdams, registering as much punch as half a teaspoon of Calpol), check on his watch collection, tie a bow-tie, and zoom into the upstate hills in a roaring penis substitute. You see, Strange might be in the life-saving biz, but he’s more concerned about his own prestige in the medical community, rather than the well-being of the average patient. Trouble is, when karma finally comes a’calling in the shape of a near-fatal car accident which mangles the super-surgeon’s priceless hands, we don’t necessarily get the feeling that Strange deserves such a fate. Sure, he’s obnoxious and selfish, but director Scott Derrickson could have done more here to show that Strange is a fairly unpleasant chap; instead he comes across as a more humourless Tony Stark.
In fairness to Cumberbatch, post-accident Dr. Strange admirably approaches Dr. Evil. Unhappy with the work done on his ruined hands, he bombastically claims that only he could have done an adequate job, before reminding on/off squeeze Palmer that someone of his complexity cannot be expected to gain pleasure from her company (he might actually have a point there…). Here, Cumberbatch’s vicious tongue does not only highlight Strange’s natural odiousness, but it also is the beginning of great sympathy for him, driven to desperation by a freak accident. Fortunately, one convoluted minor-character later and Strange decides to use the small remainder of his funds on a gap year, exploring himself and Asia. There he tracks down Kamar-Taj, the Nepalese teaching facility of the mysterious Ancient One (Tilda Swinton – white and bald), where they learn martial arts, drink tea and read books. Oh, and they also open your mind to undiscovered inter-dimensional astro-planes of unlimited possibilities.
If all of that Door of Kukundu astro-rubbish leaves you clawing for a copy of the Telegraph and a Starbucks latte, then you might find the rest of the film difficult to stomach. Certainly, this is one of the oddest superhero films to date, and it does ask us, like Strange himself, to free our minds and confine our disbelief to the mirror realms. With all its exposition of dark dimensions, sanctums, levitation boots, portals and time-altering relics, the film often resembles an episode of ‘The Mighty Boosh’ directed by Salvador Dali. Still, Derrickson has made a conscious effort not to let the silliness be too overwhelming, using some titter-inducing popular culture references and, crucially, set and costume design that feels rooted in reality, albeit a reality where people talk about Dormammu in dojos and habitually dress like Vegas illusionists.
This oddness is no more evident than in the superb visual effects, which contrast beautifully with the tangible set design and are near-impossible to describe: intricate and disorientating, buildings often slot and lock into other shapes; circles and triangles appear almost impossibly, and the whole thing has a kind of chaotic and stunning order. In modern cinema, it often seems a cop-out to praise the effects, considering the technology available, but so frequently these visuals can seem too perfect and therefore unreal. Here, a good kind of unreal is exactly what Derrickson and company are going for. Strange’s first visit to the astro-plane is an acid-trip glory: the most startling image comes when Strange’s hands grow hands, which grow hands, which grow hands… Can you tell that he’s hung up about his hands?
Refreshingly for a superhero flick, there are no pointlessly destructive battles here. Instead, every set-piece comes with purpose and a new slice of psychedelic originality, be it a fist-fight between astral forms or the time-bending finale. One criticism of Marvel films of late has been that, while the studio is generally comfortable with costumed hunks hitting each other, it is less adept at the quieter moments (hello, Avengers farmhouse scene). Here, thanks to Cumberbatch’s effortless witty charm and the restrained sincerity of his cast mates, ‘Doctor Strange’ is effective in its subtlety. Part of this comes from the fact that Strange is not born with his powers, nor is he the result of an experiment. Instead, he is a model of aspiration: a dedicated student who realises that brains will ultimately win over brawn, as evidenced by his hilarious encounters with fusty librarian Wong (another Benedict, another Wong).
Despite the infinite novelty here, there are some Marvel tropes which are as predictable as pulling a rabbit from a hat. Mads Mikkelsen is traditionally tight-lipped as villainous Kaecilius, an apprentice gone rogue who spends most of his screen-time marching purposefully. Elsewhere, with all the Shakespearean weight of the cast, it seems a shame to under-use Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, a conservative student who does not do much more than look doubtful and slip in and out of an African accent; however, a post-credits scene reveals a move away from glamorous assistant for Master Mordo in subsequent films.
Ultimately, though, these quibbles are like moaning that the magician only guessed four of your five cards. Like any great trick, if you don’t care how its done, this sorcery story is the source of consistently surreal entertainment.