The second film in the third phase of the the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe opens with a brand-new Marvel ident; where Captain America: Civil War signalled a huge change in direction it never-the-less featured a roster of the biggest stars established over the previous twelve feature films of that franchise in the latest development of a storyline which had been running for eight years.
While this new animated introduction, featuring moments from those hugely successful films alongside the customary comic panels, confirms to the viewer that what they are about to see is still very much connected to that wider universe, that anchor is necessary because Doctor Strange is something altogether new and potentially the riskiest instalment Marvel have yet released and could even be interpreted as the beginning of the handover from current stars Robert Downey, Jr and Chris Evans as their contracts lapse.
Featuring a new and formidably-talented A-list European headline cast, a director and writer new to the franchise and even a new style of storytelling, more outlandish even than Marvel’s previous gamble with Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Stephen Strange has been around in comic form since the early sixties and expands the grandiose fictional universe into the realms of the spiritual and magical, successfully carrying the Marvel Cinematic Universe with it, opening up vast possibilities for the forthcoming Infinity War.
A charismatic hotshot neurosurgeon in present-day New York, Stephen Strange (Star Trek Into Darkness‘ Benedict Cumberbatch) is intuitive and analytical, buoyed in his confidence by a history of always being correct in his decisions and actions. Following a near-fatal road accident on his way to a speaking engagement his hands are severely injured, rendering them incapable of the fine manipulation necessary to continue his career; unable to adjust or consider an alternative such as teaching, his professional life is left in tatters.
Desperately seeking a treatment he exhausts his financial resources and pushes his few friends away, until following a slender lead he fetches up penniless in Kathmandu looking for a mystical intervention. There he encounters Karl Mordo (Serenity‘s Chiwetel Ejiofor) who brings him before the Ancient One (Snowpiercer‘s Tilda Swinton) who, after a difficult start, opens up his perception to the multiverse and trains him in the magical arts.
After his hesitant start, it becomes apparent that Strange has a natural talent but he raises concerns among his peers with his demands in his tuition, reminding them of Kaecilius (Men & Chicken‘s Mads Mikkelsen), a former Masters of Mystic Arts who murdered the librarian of Kamar-Taj and stole rituals from books under his care, betraying the Ancient One and abandoning his sacred duty to defend the three Sanctums which protect the Earth against the Dark Dimension.
When the London Sanctum is attacked by Kaecilius and his followers the destruction flows back through the portal maintained between it and Kamar-Taj, and Strange escapes through another portal, finding himself back in New York, separated from his teachers and pursued by the more experienced and ruthless sorcerers who have attacked the sanctuary. Alone and unprepared, he must defend the city.
With a striking physical resemblance to the comic book depiction, Cumberbatch is a natural choice to play Strange although it could be argued that he is slightly too sympathetic at the start, but his natural charisma, talent and dry wit in the occasional comic moments allow him to round out the enigmatic character from the comics and his absolute commitment makes even the most absurd scenes believable.
Ably and effortlessly supported by Swinton, Ejiofor, Mikkelsen and a largely-wasted Rachel McAdams as his colleague/former lover Christine Palmer, presumably laying the groundwork for an expanded role in the future, Strange makes a very welcome addition to the pantheon of Marvel Cinematic heroes and it will be very interesting to watch him interact with the existing characters, particularly Tony Stark, his spiritual twin with whom he shares a matching arrogance.
Tonally and visually, significant elements of this film bear a remarkable resemblance to the more mature entries in the Harry Potter series, which is no bad thing, and one could seriously think of this as Harry Potter for a more grown-up audience. In what is undeniably his best film, director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver Us from Evil) has done a serviceable, competent job but it lacks the sparkle of the Russo Brothers or Joss Whedon and instead relies upon the talents of its cast and visual effects artists to bring it to life.
Smaller in scale than either Age of Ultron or Civil War yet more ambitious in terms of creativity, Doctor Strange boasts cutting-edge effects, some more successful than others, but while there is an enormous amount of digital additions and enhancements they are not supposed to be representing reality so much as the fantastical impinging on reality, and so the sheer volume of effects does not feel as though it is substituting for story, the breathtaking spectacle of it all being very much the point.
Certain sequences owe a great debt to the works of M C Escher and would best be seen in 3D as they can be quite disorienting otherwise. There are undeniable similarities to the imagery of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but Derrickson, who was also responsible for shocking remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, and his visual effects wizards have taken it to another level completely, their astral vistas stunningly rendered and illuminated, their fractal landscapes receding from the eye and travelling into the mind.
Similarly detailed and impressive are the costumes designed by Marvel regular Alexandra Byrne, the interweaving layers of the Ancient One’s robes as complex and layered as she herself, reflecting her relationship with the multiverse, while Strange’s Cloak of Levitation is a character unto itself, and praise is also due to the makeup designers for their work on Kaecilius and Strange’s ruined hands.
Written Prometheus‘ Jon Spaihts, Derrickson and his Sinister collaborator C Robert Cargill, the climactic showdown stays remarkably faithful to creator Steve Ditko’s original trippy designs and, for once, does not involve people knocking ten bells out of each other but rather relies on guile and the deployment of a throwaway warning from the start of Strange’s journey, another departure from the established Marvel format, signalling Doctor Strange as a more intellectual protagonist than the other Avengers.
Doctor Strange is now on general release screening in 2D, 3D and 3D IMAX