Release date: 28 October 2016
Genre: Comic Book/Fantasy
With the expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it only made sense that the franchise was going to start introducing more ‘out-there’ characters from Marvel Comics after the runaway success of their 2014 spacefaring adventure Guardians of the Galaxy (which was truly excellent and I am beyond excited for the sequel coming next year). So when Doctor Strange was announced, I can understand why some people may have been skeptical about the characters inclusion. “Magic? In the MCU?” they cried. “He’ll be too OP (overpowered)!” Well, yeah, he kind of is. But that’s not a bad thing… I’ll get to that later. Strange had already been namedropped in Captain America: The Winter Soldier as potentially being a threat to evil organisation Hydra (which raises a couple of continuity issues as Doctor Strange is implied to be set after the follow-up to Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, so he wouldn’t have been magical at that point, but just don’t think about it too much I guess, unless Hydra simply feels threatened by good surgery), so from that moment I was personally excited to see the character in the MCU. Once Benedict Cumberbatch was confirmed to play Strange, I was even more excited. What I got when finally watching the movie was relatively standard Marvel fare in terms of basic storyline, but the visuals, concept and acting was peak Marvel, in my opinion.
SPOILERS AHEAD. Obviously.
The basic premise of the movie is this: Doctor Stephen Strange is a famous, mega-talented surgeon (with a salivating collection of designer watches – who doesn’t love foreshadowing?) who loses the use of his skilled hands after a nasty car crash that would make Richard Hammond blush. Desperately seeking the intricate use of his hands back after medical procedures don’t provide the results he feels he needs and straining his relationship with his ex-wife (Rachel McAdams), he hears of a mystic order in Kathmandu which supposedly healed a man who was entirely paralysed from the waist down, which should have been impossible. Once he travels there he meets the enigmatic (not-yet-Baron) Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who after an incredibly trippy sequence begin to train Strange in the magical arts and enlist his help in trying to defeat rogue sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who intends on allowing an insanely powerful interdimensional enemy known as Dormammu into our world to “save” the people of Earth (read: everyone dies).
So in terms of basic story, it’s relatively standard “egotistical protagonist must learn humility and tap into his true strength to stop Bad Guy X from destroying/taking over the world/city (delete as applicable). But the way the film goes about this plot is a refreshing change of pace from some of the other movies in the MCU. Despite the magical powers of characters such as The Ancient One are shown to be incredibly powerful, Strange is still coming to grips with his powers and the world of magic for most of the film. The fighting set pieces are mostly based around the actual environments shifting around the combatants and how this affects them, particularly the novice Strange, rather than punching each other for 15-20 minutes. This rings especially true in the final ‘battle’ in which Strange confronts The Dread Dormammu himself in the Dark Dimension and has to rely on his cunning to defeat Dormammu instead of using brute force. This only serves to strengthen the film, in my opinion. Strange recognises that Dormammu is far, far too powerful for anybody to overpower. So exploiting the fact that Dormammu comes from a dimension where time doesn’t actually exist, he traps both himself and Dormammu in an infinite time loop using his Eye of Agamotto artefact (which turns out to be the Time Gem of the Infinity Stones; paging Thanos), allowing Dormammu to kill him over and over again until the Dark Lord grows frustrated and has no choice but to accept Strange’s bargain to leave and never return in exchange for freedom from the time loop. This, for me, was an incredibly refreshing change of pace from final battles like those found in say Avengers: Age of Ultron which rely on multiple characters beating the snot out of wave after wave of goons (or each other) for 20 or so minutes. To see a Marvel protagonist using his brain to defeat a superior foe (and frankly there aren’t enough truly superior foes in the MCU; most of them like this movie’s Kaecilius, Malekith from Thor: The Dark World and Zemo from Civil War amongst others are still mostly forgettable fodder with none of them holding a candle to Loki) is something that has been missed in the MCU. And with bigger, more powerful threats like Thanos with the Infinity Gauntlet coming up in the future, it’ll be more engaging to see films where the protagonist(s) truly have to overcome adversity to come out on top. Hey, some of them might even finally be at a real risk of dying in these encounters when it comes to such threats. For there only to have been ONE fatal casualty in the MCU in terms of primary good guys in all of the films so far (RIP Quicksilver), it’s hard to truly get engaged with Marvel movies sometimes when you just know the main characters are probably going to be fine. Sure, The Ancient One bites the dust in this movie, but she’s hardly a name as big as (or fighting alongside) Iron Man, Thor, Captain America etc. or even Quicksilver for that matter.
Although Kaecilius is your standard ‘one and done’ villain you get all too frequently in the MCU nowadays, the other characters are very enjoyable. Cumberbatch is excellent as Strange, although his American accent is considerably wonky at times. The dynamic between him and Rachel McAdams as his ex-wife is very well done and a more interesting ‘romantic’ one than your standard Marvel fare due to the two having already been divorced before the events of the movie. They never kiss or pretend to still be lovers, but they still very much care for each other, and it’s a more complex depth than we usually get in that regard. Ejiofor and Swinton as Mordo and The Ancient One respectively are also very enjoyable. Mordo’s contrast in attitude to Strange’s built up well throughout the movie before Mordo’s complete heel turn at the end in the post-credits scene. The issue of Swinton’s Ancient One’s hypocrisy when it comes to dabbling with dark magic despite insisting that no one else should do so is an interesting plot point and adds more credibility and audience understanding to Mordo’s eventual decision to walk away. Dormammu is very believably a serious threat; although I was a little disappointed he doesn’t appear in his human-shaped flaming skull head avatar, his almost ‘cosmic cloud’ entity lends itself perfectly to the ‘outsmarting’ angle for the final fight so I can understand why Marvel went in that direction. And it’s done in a far better way than Fox did it with Galactus in the godawful Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer in 2007 before the MCU even kicked off with Iron Man in 2008. I’m still hopeful that we’ll get flaming skull Dormammu sometime in the future though – surely it’s a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ he breaks his bargain with Strange.
Ultimately, Doctor Strange is a hugely welcome addition to the MCU. Mindbending visuals, engaging characters (it’s nice to see the Magic Carpet from Disney’s Aladdin finding work again as Strange’s magical cape) and an enticing precedent for stakes to come (plus seemingly a team-up between Strange and Thor for the now even more stacked cast for Thor: Ragnarok) all make for highly enjoyable viewing that’s well worth a ‘watch’ on the big screen.
…get it? Because Strange loves watches and…. and there’s a watch motif throughout the…. forget it. It’s a great movie. Go see it.