Director Scott Derrickson claimed during the promotion for the latest entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe that he had put things on screen that had never been seen like that before. It’s a bold claim to make, especially since we have at least seen traces of what was to come in “Matrix” and “Inception”. Unquestionably though, “Doctor Strange” is a visual spectacle that is up there with the most inventive that the silver screen has had to offer in the last decades. But does the rest of the film hold up as well?
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Doctor Stephen Strange, the arrogant surgeon, whose stellar career ends abruptly when a car accident leaves him with nerve damage in his hands. Robbed of the tools of his trade, he begins a journey to find healing which leads him to Kamar-Taj, refuge of the Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton. Here, he aims to learn the magic arts to heal himself and reclaim his old life, but he is pulled into the fight against Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius, a zealot who poses a threat to earth against which the Avengers are helpless.
The cast is stellar. When Benedict Cumberbatch was cast, I was at the height of Cumber-fatigue, annoyed by his over-exposure and a completely undeserved Academy Award nomination for “The Imitation Game” (God how I hate that film…), but I’ve had time to calm down and he does a great job (as he has always done, I would never dispute his talent). In the opening minutes, he tracks Strange’s descent into a dark place. With the possible exception of Tony Starks paranoia from “Iron Man 3” onwards, it’s probably the darkest any of Marvel’s heroes has gotten, and Cumberbatch does it in twenty minutes of screen time. In terms of establishing his character, the first twenty minutes of “Doctor Strange” are amazing. It seeds aspects of his character visually that pay off later when we do not need dialogue to stress the meaning of certain aspects of his character, but more on that later. From there on, his arc becomes one of letting go of his selfish nature, on which the film continually challenges him, constantly questioning his motivations. It is an amazingly rewarding performance to watch and Cumberbatch gives Strange a degree of depth that arguably some of Marvel’s heroes have not reached after several films (A certain Asgardian warrior comes to mind, as much as I love him).
The most brilliant piece of casting however is Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. When her casting was announced, well-meaning but misguided forces on the internet were screaming white-washing, just as they did when it turned out that the MCU’s Mandarin was not a moustache-twirling Chinese man. What they failed to realize was that both the Mandarin and the Ancient One are characters rooted in stereotypical and reductive depictions of oriental “others” that we should either avoid or challenge. There is a pragmatic argument for this, which is that Marvel doesn’t want to offend one of its biggest markets, China, which is why the Ancient One, economically, could never have been Nepalese, as he is in the comics. However, throughout the MCU, there is also a growing effort to include more diversity which is not economically motivated.
The Casting of Tilda Swinton not only sidesteps that; it also gives the role to an incredible actress. She takes the challenge of the role, which is not only rooted in racial, but also narrative, stereotypes, and complicates it. The film dedicates almost as much time to Strange learning from her as it spends on him questioning her authority and teachings, and it encourages that. To say too much here would be considered a spoiler. Suffice it to say, Swinton takes the Sorceress Supreme and takes her to new and interesting places.
Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius has been dismissed by many as the usual case of a Marvel villain who is functional but barely more than that. While in general I can’t completely disprove this, I would still argue that he is above average in the MCU and with a few minor tweaks would legitimately count as a great villain. As it is, he fits in perfectly with the philosophy of the film and asks exactly the right questions. He is a man who stood in the same place as Strange does now and took a different turn, which always makes for an intriguing antagonist and Mads Mikkelsen has a hypnotic charm whenever he is on screen. What holds him back the most is that during Strange’s magical education, certain rules are not stated clearly enough, which robs some of Kaecilius transgressions against those rules of impact. A slightly different edit of this film might have seen a much more threatening Kaecilius.
Rachel McAdams and Chiwetel Ejiofor shine in the smaller supporting roles. The task of a supporting character is to provide contrast to the main character so the audience can learn something new about them. Early in the film, McAdams does great work in filling in the past her character Christine Palmer shares with Strange. She plays brilliantly against Cumberbatch and his amazingly quick characterization of Strange in the beginning of the film is only possible because he can act off McAdams. Sadly, her character then vanishes from the film for large sections, but when she comes back, it’s extremely entertaining to watch her have the weirdest day of her life. Still, I hope that she gets more to do in the inevitable sequel, especially since she would be great as the audience surrogate who has no idea of magic.
At about the same time McAdams moves out of the spotlight, Ejiofor enters. He plays Baron Mordo, a student of the Ancient One, and soon a friend and teacher to Strange. His sincerity and strictness provide great contrast to Cumberbatch’s questioning of rules and practices. Once again, the script manages to provide great depth with very little dialogue. The relationship Mordo and Strange share is fascinating and bound to become only more so in future instalments.
In general, I loved the writing in this film. Apart from one ill-judged reference to the wider MCU towards the end, it is excellent and full of subtleties that only begin to shine upon re-watching the film. There is a particularly brilliant dialogue between Doctor Strange and the Ancient One in their astral forms, which achieves intricate developments for both characters at the same time. The movie also resists the temptation to over-explain. It keeps the magic vague enough to stay intriguing, while at the same time explaining enough to not be too confusing. The only time I would have wished for a bit more explicit explanation relates to one of Kaecilius acts of magic and has already been mentioned above.
Finally, it’s time to talk at length about the visuals of this film. Steve Ditko’s psychedelic style that has been a staple of Doctor Strange in the comics since his creation leaps from the page in this adaptation. Whether Strange is tumbling through different dimensions, Kaecilius is folding reality in on itself or the sorcerers are simply conjuring up weapons to fight each other, the visuals are breath-taking. Derrickson embraces the soft circular lines and kaleidoscopic imagery that characterizes the comics and lets these define the visual language of his film, even when magic is not involved.
And to be honest, this maybe even impressed me more than the big visual spectacle. The MCU films have always been competently directed, but often visually speaking quite conservative, possibly a result of Marvel often hiring TV directors who are used to working within a framework set by others and not deviating too much from the established style. Derrickson however approaches “Doctor Strange” by setting up clear visual motifs for the things that are important to his characters. We focus early on Strange’s hands, the way he uses them to do his job as a neurosurgeon. This not only prepares us to feel his loss after the accident without expending dialogue until it is needed, it also paves the way for the intricate gestures involved in performing magic later.
The other major theme is time. From the beginning, time is presented as something important to Strange, something he is always acutely aware of, be it the year a record came out or the time he has until a patient suffers irreversible nerve damage. He has a whole drawer dedicated to his expensive watches, neatly spinning, tying in that circular motif I mentioned above. While the focus on his hands pays off almost immediately, his relationship to time is more of a slow burn, but it becomes increasingly important as the film goes on.
However, time is also where I would place one of the few flaws of the film. The film is paced very tightly, it never gets boring, but in the effort to keep the film moving, some opportunities may have been squandered. During the time we spend with Strange, a few more scenes with Kaecilius would not have hurt the film and increased his impact. Also, for a film that is so obsessed with time, the actual amount of time that goes by is not communicated very clearly. It should be at least one or two years, and nothing contradicts that, but it’s also not made explicit, the only reference being a vague “after all this time” from McAdams when Strange re-enters her life. It would have been great to feel that time a bit more, especially as it gives opportunity to elaborate on looming danger of Kaecilius, who could strike at any time. Because when he strikes, it happens fast and unrelentingly. An opportunity to build more tension was lost here. Apart from this, the film has been criticized for not always landing its jokes. I did not have that experience, as the audiences I saw the film with responded well to the humour, which is a great mixture of dialogue and visual jokes. Finally, the film boasts two post credits scenes, but for the first time, I would actually recommend leaving after the first one, since I believe that the second one overreaches in its foreshadowing of future events and makes a leap with one of the characters that might best be experienced as part of the sequel, especially for people who are not acquainted with the source material.
Overall, I’m amazed by how much I loved this film. It was always going to be a visual spectacle, and Marvel always guarantees a certain level of quality. However, the filmmaking on display here goes above and beyond that. Marvel is setting up the future of their Universe beyond the big throw-down with Thanos in Infinity War and Doctor Strange might just prove to be the linchpin for that in the same way Tony Stark has been so far. Benedict Cumberbatch certainly seems up for it and I hope that Marvel invite Derrickson back to play with their toys as well.