Picture a mandala or, at least, a big spinning thing. On one layer you’ve got the Avengers, on another the Guardians of the Galaxy and now, for some reason, Doctor Strange. Doctor Strange is the beginning of chapter two of phase three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it reads less as the continuation of something as it does set up for a new thing. That’s not bad, but it means that viewers will have a lot to juggle in their minds to keep abreast of the situation going forward now that they’re fourteen movies down. It’s not a lot of work, but it is work regardless.
Genius neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoolander 2) has his hands compromised in a serious car crash. Western medicine having failed him, he travels to Nepal and unlocks the powers of the mind by training under Supreme Sorceress the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, Hail, Caesar!). Learning the powers of the multiverse puts him in good stead to fight off Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, TV’s Hannibal), a zealot who intends to “draw on the power of the dark dimension”, a phrase that will be utilised repeatedly over the course of the film.
Doctor Strange is not the first MCU film to feature magic — that would be Thor — but it is the first to use it as the background for its theory; where Thor could get away with saying things along the lines of “I’m a god, and these are artefacts”, the Ancient One gets to tell us things like “move your hands just so and surrender yourself to the universe”. It seems somehow less concrete, even if it’s backed up by theory. With fuzzier rules, Doctor Strange allows itself to feature set pieces that can showcase almost anything, so we get mirror dimensions with folding scenery reminiscent of Inception, and magic weapons that are created literally from nothing. Though Inception is an easy reference point, Doctor Strange boasts action quite unlike almost any other movie, and director and co-writer Scott Derrickson (Deliver Us From Evil) surprises with slick and distinctive work that does not speak to a man who made his name in horror films.
From a story perspective, Marvel continues its streak of the protagonists being almost infinitely more interesting than its villains; Mikkelsen is not bad, but he has little to do. Cumberbatch’s real life Englishness does not get in the way of his arch New York “assholishness”, although the character’s groundwork often comes across as a less loveable, less funny, version of Tony Stark. Cumberbatch still carries the movie well and provides something approaching a redemptive arc to the process. He is aided by Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) as his foil, Christine Palmer, much moreso than Swinton’s “Celtic” (read: China friendly) Ancient One, who is suitably mystic but more frequently distant. Chiwetel Ejiofor (Triple 9) is good but underdeveloped as Baron Mordo.
Overall Doctor Strange is a table setting movie; important enough things happen in it, but very little is resolved. That the mid-credits sting has more narrative drive than the movie itself is not exactly disappointing, but it does indicate we’ve superior movies ahead.
Doctor Strange is a third string, but not third tier, entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With a charismatic lead and almost infinite potential for future set pieces, it’s nice to think that we could have another blockbusting dynamo on our hands. That he’s not quite there yet is hardly the point; unrealised potential can still bear more than the seed of entertainment.
Doctor Strange opened in Australian cinemas on October 27, 2016.
Directed by: Scott Derrickson.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen and Tilda Swinton.