The Movie Waffler New Release Review - DOCTOR STRANGE | The Movie Waffler


New Release Review - DOCTOR STRANGE

The Marvel cinematic universe welcomes its latest addition.

Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins

Doctor Strange is visually stunning, boasting mind-blowing Dali-esque sequences that make it the closest Marvel will ever likely come to making an arthouse movie. Scott Derrickson does a fine job of integrating such visual insanity into coherent storytelling, blowing our minds without wrecking our heads.

2016's batch of poorly reviewed comic book adaptations suggests we've reached peak superhero, and that it's surely all downhill from here on. Well someone forgot to tell director Scott Derrickson, as his Doctor Strange adaptation is the most fun superhero movie since The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a film with which it shares an agreeably campy spirit, and the first Marvel movie to boast visuals that warrant big screen viewing.

There's much talk of that word - spirit - throughout Doctor Strange. The titular medic (Benedict Cumberbatch) loses his, along with the nerves in his hands, following a car crash. Growing resentful and alienating his former lover and fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), Strange sets off for Nepal after hearing of a secret cult whose practices may help him.

There he meets The Ancient One (a shaven headed Tilda Swinton), who introduces him to some highly unconventional treatment methods, including the ability to leave his physical body as an astral spirit, the power to summon portals that allow immediate access to various parts of the world, and handiest of all, a neat trick that allows him to manipulate time and space.

Unfortunately for the fate of mankind, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of The Ancient One, has gone rogue, and plans to open our world to other potentially harmful dimensions. Can Strange stop his nefarious plan?

In some ways, Doctor Strange continues the frustrations of the Marvel franchise. Despite the best efforts of Mikkelsen, we have yet another uninspiring, under-developed villain. Once again, the plot is but another riff on the generic 'let's save the world' trope. And most frustratingly of all, we have one of the year's best ensemble casts wasted in trivial roles. Even though he's on screen for practically the entire movie, we never really get a sense of who Strange is; the writers seem to have simply taken Robert Downey Jnr's Tony Stark and dialled down his arrogance a notch. Swinton's Ancient One is simply Yoda with better grammar. McAdams' Palmer exists primarily as a handy device for one particular scene in which Strange finds himself in need of medical help of a more practical nature. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong are given little of note to do beyond standing slightly behind our hero during set-pieces. And what on earth is going on with Michael Stuhlbarg's rival surgeon, introduced early on as what seems to be an important figure only to promptly disappear from the narrative?

To its credit, Doctor Strange corrects some of Marvel's ongoing issues. For a start, it actually feels like its own movie rather than an advert for future installments of the franchise, and it's only when a member of The Avengers pops up halfway through the end credits that we're reminded it's part of a shared universe. Most importantly of all, it's visually stunning, boasting mind-blowing Dali-esque sequences that make it the closest Marvel will ever likely come to making an arthouse movie. The set-pieces involving the dimensional manipulation of cities like London, New York and Hong Kong, which owe a debt to the dream sequences of FW Murnau's German Expressionist works Phantom and The Last Laugh, are simply staggering to behold. See this in IMAX 3D if you can.

Derrickson does a fine job of integrating such visual insanity into coherent storytelling, blowing our minds without wrecking our heads. He gets great value for money out of Strange's impressive array of powers. However, said powers ultimately lead down a narrative cul de sac, as the film eventually comes up against the Superman question of how to create stakes for a character with the power of a God, and the final showdown, by which time Strange is the most powerful hero seen in a Marvel movie thus far, is an anti-climax as a result, borrowing the same cop out ending of Richard Donner's Superman The Movie.

Commendably, Doctor Strange knows how to be fun without being snarky. There's an innocence about this film that we haven't seen since Marc Webb's ill-fated and under-appreciated Spider-Man series. It's unapologetically campy, and embraces the madness of its concept. A highlight is a sequence involving Strange's 'Cloak of Levitation' strangling a bad guy in a piece of slapstick that recalls James Whale's 1933 The Invisible Man.

Perhaps what's most admirable about Doctor Strange is how it acknowledges that, as a medical professional, Strange was a hero long before he gained any extra-terrestrial powers. In the wrong hands, the film could have been misconstrued as an anti-science piece of alternative healing propaganda, a dangerous thing in this era of tinfoil hats, anti-vaccination lobbies and general "I know better than the experts" mentality. Strange may be able to manipulate time and space, but when he finds himself in a tight spot, it's McAdams' very human surgeon who becomes the real hero.

Doctor Strange is in cinemas October 25th.