Doctor Strange Review
By James Murphy
When is a generic comic book super-hero origin story actually something a little bit more? When it’s DOCTOR STRANGE! Welcome to the levitation of the sub-genre. Welcome to the Sanctum Sanctorum of the Move Viral Review!
Run Time: 2 hrs approx
Genre: Sci-Fi /Action/Comic Book/Philosophical
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong
Director: Scott Derrickson
Certificate / Studio: 12A; Marvel Studios /Disney
Confession: I was not anticipating this film with any joy. I predicted a step too far; Marvel’s first misfire. The verisimilitude was wrong: quasi-horror mythology surely incompatible with a colourful and upbeat comic book cinematic brand? Great news is I was wrong. And I’m PLEASED to be proven so. I entered the Cinema with reluctant trepidation but left with a swing in my step.
Primary triumph: this is NOT a horror film. The genius of Director Scott Derrickson is that he has managed to fuse spiritualism to mythology and philosophy in a truly ecumenical manner. I would have not the slightest of hesitation in recommending this to parents with children; it will appeal to all age groups and convey lessons that are as relevant to the seven-year old as their 36-70 plus counterparts.
The core message / moral motif: Retain a curiosity and respect for our spiritual power; but live in the moment and embrace our physical, mortal, finite limitations in common humanity. What remarkable story-telling! A truly philosophical ethos contained within pseudo-science: neither undermining nor enforcing a specific religious code or philosophical agenda. Case in point is the depiction of of Satan/The Devil/Destroyer/Death in the film c/o ‘Dormammu’.
Here, evil is less a moral choice or persuasion and more a reflection and consequence of ill-judged responses to a cosmic order. Still horrifying conceptually and something to be defeated / slain but accepted within the universe we must study and understand. In turn, we can better repel threats from the gates of our sanctum, be it real or metaphorical. That’s a singular triumph of modern film-making and a tribute to the creative vision of Scott Derrickson as Director.
But you can simply enjoy this movie without probing its philosophical motifs. This is a cut and paste origin story / character. Hero begins as arrogant yet accomplished surgeon. Has massive car crash; behaves like massive twit and bankrupts himself in fruitless quest to repair his hands. Travels East and meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a bald beauty with an eternity of insights to transcend the physical realm and thereby unlock the powers of both mind and spirit.
Strange is an initially reluctant student, but catches on quickly. As you would, under Swinton’s tutelage. Well, I would, anyway. LOVE that woman. Divine, even when bald! Maybe I’m lacking objectivity? I do quite fancy Tilda. Have done ever since THAT scene in The Beach, where she makes a man out of lil Leeeoooo’s travelling surfer dude. Trust me. Also, Young Adam where she schools young Ewan’s character in all sorts of ways. Yep.
Those ‘feelings’ aside, there is no doubting Tilda’s presence pervades and defines this movie. She is more than at home in a fantastical realm and family oriented entertainment set-pieces. Indeed, it makes one wonder why they did not just go the whole hog and change the gender of Dr Strange, allowing Swinton to take centre stage.
But this is still Cumberbatch’s platform. Finally, I ‘get’ why he is a leading man. At the film’s start, he is fairly unremarkable looking and the American accent is sixth form play level sub Hugh Laurie in House standard. Benedict is also not best served by the script.
He’s not Robert Downey Junior and cannot quite portray either extreme arrogance or a swift redemption through improvised ticks or one liners. Is he meant to be a wise cracking swash-buckler..or a broodier professional, both pre and post accident / conversion to mystical arts? It’s as unclear as his muddled semi-relationship with Rachel McAdam’s character in the film (a fellow surgeon; they may do medicine but there is zero chemistry).
That said, once Benedict’s Dr Strange dons THAT goatee and red cloak and New York HQ? He is a star. A polished, commanding and charming screen presence: owning both the role and its fictional universe, whilst selflessly enabling an entertaining ensemble. Charisma, comic timing and the ability to invest a likable reality in the most ridiculous of set-pieces: Cumberbatch is now rightfully at home in the blockbuster genre.
This new level of success compliments rather than compromises Benedict’s status as consummate character actor and there is nothing to prevent his continuing with this franchise alongside worthier, weightier works. Marvel also wisely set him up as a kind of cameo character who can walk between their varying series: an astute move that is already entertaining audiences (see the mid credits scene). And if that does not work out? Well he can always take up a new career as a Vicar in the Church of England.
Does the film have faults? Of course. Derivative structure. Villains are underused sequel bait. The much praised visuals are perfectly fine but not great innovations or revelations. Bundled romance and character sketches. The score is just so -so here; no tune to hum in the shower just yet. The execution is plodding in places when it should soar and milk emotion more frequently. No truly memorable montages!
But those are ultimately minor reservations. Kevin Feige’s Marvel Regime has done it again: scoring a palpable hit that exists on its own terms and feeds the wider shared universe. Above all, it’s a thematic and philosophical treat, oozing buoyant bounce that all age groups can embrace and enjoy together.
Recommended without Reservation. Welcome to a new universe of possibility. Grade A- / Supreme Sorcery.