When the world’s leading neurosurgeon is involved in a car accident that leaves him injured, Stephen Strange finds himself on the trip through the mystic arts and into worlds and dimensions that he never knew existed. Soon enough, he finds himself front and centre in a war against dark forces determined to destroy reality as we know it.
Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton
Run Time: 155 Minutes
Release Date: 4 November (US)/28 October (Europe)
There are passion projects, and then there is this. Marvel President Kevin Feige has held a long-standing determination to get this one to the big screen, something that has rapidly gotten closer and closer to reality since the company garnered the film rights back in 2005. Before then, it spent years bouncing around studios, with projected release dates being announced and then denied and directors being hired and then dropping out. However, since 2005, scripts have been worked on, going back and forth until just right, and a suitable director put in place. All it needed was a star, and fans knew of only one man that would be perfect for the Cloak of Levitation.
Much like his co-star in Sherlock and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – just how destined for the role of Bilbo Baggins was Martin Freeman? – for some time the widespread consensus was that Benedict Cumberbatch was the only choice for the maverick doctor. However when his dance card began rapidly filling up with screen and stage work, and other actors meeting with Marvel for negotiations over the role, the realisation began to set in that maybe destiny and fate wouldn’t have their day on this occasion. With Cumberbatch himself admitting that other commitments would likely prevent him from taking the role, fans started to see the likes of Joaquin Phoenix and Ryan Gosling being linked, and while they are more than capable actors in their own right, in the eyes of many, Cumberbatch had to be the Doctor. So, following a break in tradition which saw the studio actually move production timeframes and schedules solely to accommodate an actor, the stars aligned and Benedict Cumberbatch was officially in place. And now, some 22 months later, Benedict Cumberbatch is in the role many feel he was destined to play and a long-standing Marvel Studios project is here.
It is a role that he plays with effortless ease, portraying the arrogant and cocky Strange just as many expected him to. If anything, he plays it too well, as there are times where it could be said that he is not the easiest to get behind, when compared to other characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While Cumberbatch gets several good one-liners to play with here, and his natural charm to add to the role, Strange’s continued arrogance throughout a large portion of the film doesn’t lend to a sympathetic superhero, and indeed, the role of a superhero is not necessarily one that the good Doctor wants at any rate.
The rest of the cast is actually very impressive, which makes it a shame that they are not given more to do. Given that Strange’s origin is the main story, it is understandable that he gets the focus, however, more could – and should – have been done with the support. For all the controversy over Tilda Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One, and while she herself is excellent in her role, the screen time afforded to the character is surprisingly little. Meanwhile, McAdams has little to do except play an erstwhile love interest, and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo is engaging in the scenes he gets and will very likely be back for more MCU action in the future. Mikkelsen’s Caecilius, regrettably, goes the way of the majority of the previous MCU bad guys, and it is becoming all the more concerning that director after director, writer after writer, just can’t seem to produce a villain that is nothing more than a one-movie stopgap, just filling time until Loki and Thanos get brought back for the big ensemble picture. In this instance, it seems a real waste of an actor the calibre of Mikkelsen, as there is so much more that could have been done with Caecilius, with a backstory merely hinted at, but never explored.
Away from the casting, the film’s other strongest suit is without a doubt the special effects. Bringing us something never before seen in a Marvel movie, this was definitely a risky move, though one that had to be made. From the moment Stephen Strange’s name was uttered in Captain America: The Winter Soldier – giving us that definitive confirmation that the MCU was going to enter his world – people wondered just how deep Marvel would go. The appointment of Derrickson and his assurances that we would be taken into a new cosmic direction led to increased anticipation over what we would see, and if the initial trailers did little to quell that, an excellent opening sequence featuring The Ancient One and Caecilius gives us a tantalising taster of what’s ahead.
As the movie goes on, the Inception-style effects astound and amaze all the more, with some truly astonishing visual work that I feel is going to need to be experienced in IMAX 3D, and this is one time where I will be happy to return to the cinema to experience just that.
Elsewhere, there is the usual smattering of comedy now synonymous with Marvel movies. Early on I found myself concerned that with the initial tone of the movie, comedy may not work, however, the exchanges between Cumberbatch and Benedict Wong’s character – named Wong, actually – offer genuine laughs. Also, despite Mordo’s eventual position as Strange’s sidekick, the strangely charismatic Cloak of Levitation totally steals that spotlight and offers some of the movie’s biggest laughs.
Despite my admiration for Peyton Reed’s work on Ant-Man, Doctor Strange now becomes Marvel’s strongest origin story since Iron Man. Admittedly, the pacing needed some work, with the early story hurriedly rushed through to get to Strange’s introduction to The Ancient One, however, once the movie settles down, it never lets up, hitting the viewer with some strong performances and those magnificent effects.
This acts totally independent of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe – though you do need to stick around for the mid-credit scene – however, it provides a strong first introduction to a character long desired by many to join the already-burgeoning roster of superheroes.
Seeing Cumberbatch on screen in a Marvel picture, knowing he will one day share the screen with the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Chris’ Evans and Pratt is exciting for any Marvel fan out there. After years of waiting, the Doctor is finally in…and things in the MCU will never be the same again.