Doctor Strange

Review by Manuela Lazic

Directed by

Scott Derrickson

Starring

Benedict Cumberbatch Chiwetel Ejiofor Tilda Swinton

Anticipation.

Marvel films haven’t been great – or even that coherent – lately, and what does Dr Strange even do?

Enjoyment.

Great fun and technically exciting.

In Retrospect.

Unpretentious yet effective and formally audacious, as well as occasionally deep for good measure: this is entertainment!

At long last – a light, funny superhero movie that embraces the fantasy aspects of the genre in both its story and form.

“I could have done better!” exclaims Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), former Doctor, to the surgeons who tried their best to fix his hands after a terrible car accident. Despite his brush with death, Strange hasn’t lost any of his arrogance or his faith in science. He recalls another famous pretentious doctor played by a British actor, found this time in TV land: Hugh Laurie’s Dr House also thought himself far more talented than his peers. However, House was more humble and accepted that his leg would never fully heal.

By contrast, Strange will try anything to save his hands and his career, and thus brings to mind another Marvel hero: Tony Stark, who in order to survive and to remain on top of the technological warfare game, became Iron Man. Yet Strange’s transformation is rendered even more compelling thanks to director Scott Derrickson’s uncompromising, unsentimental and, yes, realistic approach.

Death cannot bring Strange to modesty, therefore only something beyond death could. For Stark, it was love, but Strange isn’t the sentimental type (or his sentiments are buried way too deep). This is where the film gets very strange indeed – knowingly so, of course – by taking a big step into the mystical realm. Following a rather tenuous lead, Strange travels to Nepal to find someone who can supposedly teach the mind to heal the body, even though he doesn’t believe in such “gift shop” things.

Adopting his character’s scientific outlook, Derrickson introduces the spiritual phenomena that Strange is exposed to in a radical matter-of-fact way: one second, Strange is sitting on a chair in a monastery, the next he is projected across dimensions where buildings bend and multiply exponentially and every rule of physics is forgotten. Then, as soon as the Ancient One – the master of this place, played by a Tilda Swinton at her otherworldly best – telepathically lets go of him, Strange returns to our dimension just as abruptly as he left it. There is no way around the strangeness of the spiritual world: as the master soon tells Strange, “Not everything can be explained,” and Derrickson follows her advice to embrace the unknown.

Nevertheless, this other dimension has to be faced, and the mystical, just like medicine, can only be mastered through practice. Derrickson’s realism applies to both the world as we know it, and the magical one: it takes Strange countless trials and errors to get to grips with the basics of his new powers, and even then he remains extremely vulnerable. Even more so than Iron Man in his near-indestructible metal suit, Strange seems to be surviving fights in extremis, which makes him a refreshing addition to a Cinematic Universe stuffed with semi-invincible demigods.

Facing the student-gone-rogue Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, who seems to be developing his style again by crying unsolicited tears like he cried blood in Casino Royale), Strange appears ready to break at any moment – just like Tom Cruise’s Cage in Edge of Tomorrow he is an unlikely hero who must learn on the job how to defend himself. As the film progresses, it echoes Doug Liman’s time-bending epic in other ways, although the result is perhaps less exhilarating.

Sticking to realism when travelling across dimensions in which reality is of a different kind means that situations change from being fascinatingly unique to ludicrously absurd. Derrickson manages to avoid the pitfalls of other Marvel movies by (mostly) not forcing the humour, instead allowing it to slip through the life-or-death circumstances of the story, and through the very British sarcasm of the film’s hero.

The real and the mystical meet in ever more striking ways, as when Strange’s inherent rationality is challenged by the rules of the mystical world. Even though it was difficult for him to admit that science isn’t always enough, he must then accept that the mystical world too has its limits. An astonishing scene shows Strange having to teleport himself to his very real hospital to heal his body, while his spirit fights a villain in the ‘astral’ dimension in the same room: the two worlds don’t quite collide, but they are connected, which Derrickson expresses through the use of handheld camera and some masterful cross-editing between both simultaneous scenes.

The film’s visual style is by far the most interesting of any Marvel film. Rarely has a modern blockbuster so fully embraced the possibilities of digital cinema for its fantastical sequences, incorporating its action into infinite views formed through the code-like repetition of visual motifs. Unapologetically, Derrickson invites us to bask in the utter physical irrationality and playfulness of the algorithmic designs, just as he devotes himself to an almost docu-style approach when returning us to the real world. while such a heady mix of digitalism and realism could have been jarring, Doctor Strange makes for a captivating cinematic experience, one that signals a bright future for Hollywood.

Published 25 Oct 2016

Tags: Benedict Cumberbatch Chiwetel Ejiofor Mads Mikkelsen Tilda Swinton

Anticipation.

Marvel films haven’t been great – or even that coherent – lately, and what does Dr Strange even do?

Enjoyment.

Great fun and technically exciting.

In Retrospect.

Unpretentious yet effective and formally audacious, as well as occasionally deep for good measure: this is entertainment!

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