Doctor Strange – Review

 An Extra Dimension

Benedict Cumberbatch fits into Doctor Strange’s cloak easily, whilst humour, staggering visuals and emotional development make this comic-book jaunt a welcome change from the Marvel norm.

12A, 115 mins

***

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After the excitement but ultimate pointlessness of Captain America: Civil War, and Marvel film after Marvel film of metropolitan destruction, their latest comic-book outing has got something new – a kind of magic. And, to my superhero-jaded eyes, it can’t come soon enough.

Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch), as his name might suggest, is a doctor. More precisely he’s a neurosurgeon, and an arrogant one at that, so unlikeable at the outset that you almost wish him ill. Not long into the film, an unfortunate accident transforms his life, but, in a welcome change, the film takes time to ponder over the consequences of this, before Strange runs off to a mystical place near Kathmandu which could hold the key to his recovery.

There he stumbles across the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her disciple Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who steer him towards thinking of things much greater than himself. Here the film really picks up, as we are catapulted into alternate dimensions and the world of magic. We see swirling multicoloured vortexes, the vastness of space, and objects and buildings folding in on each other at a dizzying rate. The visual effects in this film are astounding, like Inception amped up to 11 and high on speed. Seeing the universe anew, Strange decides he wants in, and begins to master sorcery.

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But we wouldn’t be introduced to these kinds of wonders if there were not a big problem – hence the film’s main plot. The big villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who sounds more like a Roman Emperor than a sorcerer, has a plan to do Something Evil That Could Destroy The Universe, and, naturally, must be stopped. Doctor Strange, fill your boots.

If this were played straight, as was Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (the last time the Marvel Universe really went space-age), it might come across as a little too serious for its own good. So, thankfully, as per Ant-Man, the humour level is high. The writers take pretty much every chance they can to poke fun, and one gag early on punctures the pomposity hilariously. Strange’s scenes with a figure known only as Wong (Benedict Wong), whose function will not be revealed here, also prove to be a great source of mirth throughout.

Aside from the comedy, the lingering over emotions is another of Doctor Strange’s strong suits, and another aspect which differs from the norm. Strange’s development into a hero, plus the revelations which come later, have a real impact, because there is as much emphasis on those parts as on the cataclysmic showdowns. This helps leaven the atmosphere, and sets things up well for the already-confirmed sequel.

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As the posterboy of this frenzied yet entertaining ride, Cumberbatch does fine, and looks perfectly at home, but is also part of the problem with Doctor Strange – it’s just a little too much of his show. Rachel McAdams, who plays his colleague and love interest Dr Christine Palmer, is, as always, charming and lovely, but besides pulling the odd surprised face and wheeling people round a hospital, has little to do. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo, meanwhile, is barely fleshed out, despite the actor bringing Shakespearean heft to his scenes. Mads Mikkelsen is largely wasted as the villain, though he does bring class to what he’s got, even managing to make one scene quite affecting. Tilda Swinton, however, is on reliably loopy, ethereal form as the mentor figure. Next time we need to see less of Strange’s own development, and more of other people.

Despite the refreshing use of mysticism and magic, however, the story does eventually descend into a CGI-infested, rushed final act which wraps matters up too neatly and easily for my liking. But it can be forgiven, as it is easy to forget, in the multicoloured haze of the ending, just how much the film packs into its nigh-on two hours, and how far Strange’s character has come. From his cocky beginning to his life-threatening accident, via some space-warping action antics and a few quiet moments to himself, our Doctor has quite a journey, and Cumberbatch does a great job of showing it.

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So there’s enough here to make you hope that Doctor Strange can be more than just another cog in the Marvel machine. With that bit more emotion and fun at its heart, plus a conceit that is set apart from recent comic-book films, the film is definitely strange, or at least different. It’s an exciting start, but next time the filmmakers need to add an extra dimension not just to their main man, but to his fellow characters and the story he finds himself in. Only then will Doctor Strange avoid the worst of cinematic fates – being just like the rest.

Alex Nicholson

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