US (2016) Dir. Scott Derrickson
In the year of the Marvel vs. DC war on the big screen, Marvel are so far 2-0 up with Deadpool and Captain America: Civil War both delivering the goods whilst DC’s Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad were disappointments critically and at the box office. Can Marvel score a hat trick with one of the riskier adaptations from their canon?
Like with Deadpool, I wasn’t too familiar with Doctor Strange prior to going into this film so I had no expectations to be destroyed unlike existing fans, who are the primary audience. The reason I suggested this was “risky” is down to the existential and philosophical themes that might be beyond the ken of the younger viewers, whilst the superhero aspect is born out of something mystical rather than radiation and technology.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a highly skilled neurosurgeon, whose ego matches his lofty reputation. His hands are destroyed in a car accident and his fellow surgeons tried to reconstruct them, but Strange can’t live with being so useless. He learns of a paraplegic, Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), who somehow was able to walk again after being paralysed, and tracks him down.
Pangborn tells Strange to find “Kamar-Taj”, which turns out to be a monastery in Kathmandu, home to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a specialist in elemental and spiritual magic. Meanwhile, a former student of the Ancient One, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) steals pages from the Book of Cagliostro, to summon the lord of the Dark Dimension, Dormammu, and achieve immortality.
As origin stories go this is quiet far out from the usual marvel fare, although the fates that befall Peter Parker, Bruce Banner and Reed Richards aren’t exactly everyday occurrences either. It is also one that requires a lot more exploration of its core principles relating to the mysticism and esoteric tenets behind the philosophies, which aren’t too far removed from some religious doctrine.
But this is a two-hour film and also has a good vs. evil story to tell, so we are forced to make concessions towards the expedience of Strange’s progress in mastering the magic skills. It’s not that rushed – he does lag behind the other students in creating a magic portal or summoning a weapon but the Ancient One and her top students Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong) soon bring him up to speed.
If this is a bugbear of such fantasy tales, this is covered by the fact Strange has a photographic memory and is a prodigious quick learner when he can put his ego aside and take interest in something. Therefore, when he does end up the position of saviour of the world, his advanced magical skill set is easily accepted than had he become adept overnight.
Unfortunately, the definition of the prime villain Kaecilius is less fortunate. Flanked by three zealots he is stoically nasty (he beheads the monastery librarian in the opening scene) but none of this is sufficiently established. Instead, the quartet show up, raise hell then disappear until needed again, their motives beyond the selfish desires of their leader.
Luckily Strange is a well drawn character, his journey from smarmy doctor to broken man trying to recover his life is charted as a conventional drama, setting this apart from other comic book films. This includes the relationship with ex-lover and fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), a female who bucks the damsel in distress trope but serves as a connection between the two worlds Strange would eventually straddle.
Actually two worlds is a little spurious – the magic Strange learns from the Ancient One includes the ability to create a mirror dimension to protect the “regular” world from harm whenever the brown stuff hits the fan. There are also astral projections – self initiated out of body experiences – time jumping and other fantastic tricks our heroes perform while defending the planet from dark forces.
This means the film is another special effects heavy affair but with good reason, and the legendary ILM have excelled themselves. Part of the Ancient One’s abilities is to literally twist the perspective of the landscape up, down left, right, back to front, while portals randomly appear, gravity is defied and spaces collapse in on themselves. It is eye popping, mind-bending stuff that must cause a few headaches when viewed in 3D, a well as a hard time for the film’s editors.
Yet for all the visual treats this film delivers, and there is arguably few films released this year to match it, this is also strong on the performance side, with the dialogue and delivery taking on a high brow slant, especially from the Ancient One. It is not until the final act with the obligatory showdown that we enter comic book mode but prior to this, it is largely and unconventionally serious.
Benedict Cumberbatch is mesmerising as Strange and while it may be too early to say this, could already be the definitive screen version. There was much consternation about Tilda Swanton’s casting of an Asian character but she is actually very effective, enigmatic, mystical yet in control. As mentioned earlier Kaecilius isn’t fleshed out enough even for Mads Mikkelsen to make him memorable but his screen presence is still felt.
In case it all sounds po-faced, it isn’t. Wong, the replacement librarian, is responsible for much of the comic relief of the film and creates a fun partnership with Strange but neither roles are a joke. Stan Lee’s obligatory cameo is intact while it is advised to stick around both during and after the end credits for some moe guest appearances and a possible teaser for the sequel.
Marvel has knocked one out of the park once again with Doctor Strange. It’s a film that boldly sets its own agenda within the comic book milieu which is will polarise opinion, depending on whether you like you like your superheroes outrageous or cerebral.
Final score – Marvel 3 DC 0
Rating – ****
Man In Black