1 November 2016

Doctor Strange review

As we neared the finale of Doctor Strange, I suddenly realised that I was more interested in seeing the after-credits scenes than I was in watching the film perform its conclusion. My investment in this movie rested more in seeing how this story and these character would go on to interact with the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe than it did in the story and characters themselves, and although that's fantastic news as far as the Marvel Cinematic Universe is concerned - a testament to how well these 14 movies have come together in order to create something greater than the sum of its parts - it's also a fairly good indication that Doctor Strange itself simply isn't all that engaging a movie.

Following a career-ending car crash, we follow talented ex-neurosurgeon Stephen Strange as he attempts to master the mystical arts in order to heal his hands back into the condition they once were. Travelling to a place called Kamar-Taj in Nepal, Strange starts to study and train under the guidance of The Ancient One, who eventually reveals to Strange that he now has a responsibility to protect the Earth from the kind of mystical threats that the Avengers cannot.

To clarify, Doctor Strange isn't exactly a bad film as such, it's just that it seems like it only exists in order to add another set of characters to the ever growing toy box that Marvel Studios has to play with. It's as pure an origin story as Marvel Studios have ever made, and in that sense it almost feels like it should have been released at some point before Avengers Assemble - it feels like a Phase 1 film throughout, not just in structure but also in style and tone, both of which seem less refined than the Marvel Studios movies of late.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing, it just means that Doctor Strange might feel a little dated to anybody who has been following the Marvel Cinematic Universe these last 8 years. You may not have seen this exact character before, but you know his story from Doctor Strange's opening moments - arrogant, selfish genius learns to be a better person after suffering a traumatic experience that changes him. Comparisons to Iron Man are not just apt, they're almost unavoidable, and unfortunately they aren't comparisons that help Doctor Strange - Iron Man is inarguably the stronger of the two films, at least when it comes to the central narrative.

But that lack of originality in the story-telling department doesn't mean that Doctor Strange has nothing to offer elsewhere. Visually, it's nothing short of extraordinary from the second it starts - a cold opening introduces us to the reality bending, magically enhanced action scenes that Doctor Strange has in store for us, seemingly playing its hand upfront before dialling everything up to 11 when things get even crazier later on in the movie. It's Christopher Nolan's Inception taken to the nth degree, an M. C. Escher drawing bought to life, and that's all before director Scott Derrickson injects the film with a surely lethal dose of psychedelic mind-fuckery.

And cynicism about the films intentions aside, it has to be said that Doctor Strange does a good job of introducing us to this character and the world he inhabits. Benedict Cumberbatch always seemed like an obvious choice to play Stephen Strange, but it's obvious for a reason - ignoring a slightly dodgy accent it's clear that the role fits him like a glove, combining ego with intelligence with a superiority complex in a way that ensures that he doesn't just feel like Tony Stark Mark II, despite the similarities between the two characters. Much the same is true of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, or Benedict Wong as Wong - they may not have as much to do as Cumberbatch, but they each suit their characters incredibly well, and I'm looking forward to seeing how these characters develop in future films.

Which brings us on to Tilda Swinton's portrayal of The Ancient One. Politically, Doctor Strange was always going to struggle here - it's already a film trying to deal with the "white saviour" trope, and having to decide between whitewashing a prominent Asian role or committing to the "magical Asian" stereotype can't have been an easy decision - but it has to be said that regardless of whether or not Marvel Studios made the right call (and I'm sure there won't be a consensus on that for some time) Swinton is as great here as she has ever been, a mesmerising, human presence who elevates the film whenever she's on-screen and whose absence is felt in every scene she isn't in.

All of which adds up to a film that only really works in fits and bursts, never quite coming together in the way it needed to. It's perfectly watchable throughout, and in fairness the nearly two hour run time flies by - but it's also far too formulaic, far too predictable, far too ordinary to leave you with anything other than the nagging feeling that you've just sat through a film that is wholly disposable. As I said earlier, I'm looking forward to seeing how Doctor Strange and his supporting cast end up interacting with the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe - but that doesn't make up for a film that really needed to be better when taken on its own.

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