To be honest, when I first heard that Benedict Cumberbatch was going to be Doctor Strange, I was relatively underwhelmed.
While I think he’s a fantastic actor who has delivered some extraordinary performances in both Sherlock and The Imitation Game (to name a few), I wasn’t that blown away by the news. That’s probably down to not knowing an awful lot about Doctor Strange himself; not to mention the absolute saturation of Marvel superhero films in the cinemas these days.
This nonchalance towards the film carried on until an impromptu cinema trip with my classmates. I thought I’d better prepare and finally get around to watching the trailer, where I discovered that the antagonist was Mads Mikkelsen, one of my favourite actors.
Alongside Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams and Benedict Wong, you really can’t argue with the casting in this film. That said, by the time the lights had dimmed in the cinema screen, I was excited.
With the initial exception of Cumberbatch’s questionable accent, Steven Strange is introduced as a world-renowned neurosurgeon with a propensity towards the arrogant.
With a state-of-the-art Lamborghini and a New York apartment that Peter Parker could only dream of, Strange openly displays his materialism and aloofness throughout the first third of the film, predictably enough. Having performed a miraculous surgery on a man with a bullet lodged in his skull, Cumberbatch’s distant performance, no doubt borrowed from Sherlock, challenges the audience to justify his attitude towards his peers and, primarily, his former partner Christine (Rachel McAdams).
As he races out of his garage in a (delightfully pretentious) Lamborghini at break-neck speed, Strange’s conceited behaviour escalates as he swerves in and out of traffic (don’t you just hate that?), ultimately spinning out of control as his attempts to use his phone while driving. The sequence could almost be used in a ‘don’t text and drive’ campaign.
We witness the limitations in Lamborghini’s safety features as Strange plummets down a hill, consequently lying in a mangled mess at the bottom.
This is where the fun begins.
With his career in tatters, Strange pushes his (only) loved one away – Christine (Rachel McAdams) and squanders his last dollar on a one-way trip to Kathmandu, in search of the fabled Kamar-Taj.
The journey to Nepal is as spiritual as it is physical, as seen in many fictional realms prior to the film.
Strange, depicted as a shadow of his former self, stumbles through Kathmandu unshaven and in dire need of a haircut. Desperation clings to his very posture; his New York self wouldn’t have gave himself the time of day. He eventually seeks out ‘The Ancient One’ and soon learns his lesson as she forces him to learn the hard way.
As James Dyer of Empire puts it:
Upon reaching the Himalayan temple of Kamar-Taj, he and we embark on a phantasmagorical vision quest unlike anything the studio has done before. Forcibly ripped from his corporeal form, Cumberbatch’s physician is cast onto the astral plane for a two-minute sequence that plays out like Salvador Dalí’s wettest dream.
We tumble into the void, passing comets and crystals before shooting into the event horizon of a black hole, along a tunnel of exploding fractals into a sea of kaleidoscopic colour. “Have you seen that in a gift shop?” quips Swinton’s magic monk.
You truly have to see it to believe it.
The array of psychedelic sequences tend to break the fourth wall, as if reminding the audience that they themselves are witnessing a virtual dimension within the reality of the cinema setting.
I didn’t even see it in 3D and, nonetheless, it was truly immersive.
I won’t go any further with an in-depth retelling of the film, I’ll leave that to your fine selves to find out.
Mads Mikkelsen’s performance is as believable as ever, his accent offering an other-worldliness to the role of Kaecilius. He even went to the trouble of growing his hair out for the role of Kaecilius (so I am reliably informed) – quite the opposite to Tilda Swinton’s efforts. It just goes to show the commitment of the two aforementioned actors.
As seen in the trailer, when Kaecilius and Strange first meet in the New York Sanctum, there is a slight mix up with the latter’s insistence on being called Doctor Strange:
You’ll die defending this world, Mister…
Maybe, who am I to judge?
That is what stands out in Doctor Strange for me.
While we are taken on a guided existential crisis through multiple planes of reality, the film is littered with clever wit and humour that offers a relief from the immersion.
Take Strange’s surprisingly charismatic Cloak of Levitation, for example. Where Thor’s hammer frequently serves as an object of humour, Doctor Strange’s cloak is actually personified – it’s also great help in a fight.
Furthermore, Benedict Wong’s performance is equally delightful in terms of comedy; Wong’s stoic personality eventually breaks in with great timing. That’s not to mention the humour that derives from the exploration of the planes of reality that we are privy to. In one scene, Strange is forced into his astral form, while unconscious, and fights one of Kaecilius’ zealots within the astral plane. The filmmakers are surprisingly creative in their depiction of floating figures sparring.
It’s nice to see that, after so many films (Doctor Strange being the 14th in sequence), Marvel can still offer something new to their filmography.
Doctor Strange is one of the most enjoyable Marvel films I’ve seen in a while. As jarring as its psychedelic sequences are, the innovative use of CGI offers an impressive reorientation of the stock superhero film: the city scenes blow Inception out of the water in terms of wow-factor.
Finally, Marvel has shifted from its tendency toward the predictable, finally producing something quite different to add their extensive repertoire.
Benedict Cumberbatch makes an impressive start to his beginnings as Marvel’s most recent hero. Following the promising end-credit sequence(s), it seems that we only have good things to await from Doctor Steven Strange in the future.