If ever a genre were in need of an innovative shot in the arm, it’s the superhero movie. After a bruising blockbuster season – in which Batman V Superman, X-Men Apocalypse and Suicide Squad all flopped hard – fans are crying out for something other than a “hyper-choreographed, gravity defying, city-block destroying, CG fuckfest,” as James Mangold so eloquently put it in his upcoming Logan script.
Doctor Strange is intended to do just that for Marvel. Like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, this tremendously trippy tale of an arrogant surgeon who becomes a sorcerer after a career-ending car accident invites us to explore previously unseen corners of the MCU. But while opening the door to parallel dimensions allows director Scott Derrickson to create some eye-popping visuals, such spectacular delights are of little use when pinned to a story that’s hemmed in by the same old flaws.
Benedict Cumberbatch (a dab hand at playing irascible geniuses) is the titular high-flying neurosurgeon whose luxurious lifestyle is destroyed when his nimble fingers are mangled after a high-speed car crash caused entirely by his own uncontrollable hubris. Strange’s desperate search for a remedy strips him of all his worldly possessions – including an envious watch collection – and eventually leads to a secret order hidden in a remote part of Nepal where Tilda Swinton’s enigmatic Ancient One is persuaded to school him in the mystical arts.
As a sceptical Strange reluctantly opens his mind to the unknown potential of his new powers, so to do the boundless possibilities of this new multiverse become astoundingly clear. In a surreal sequence which recalls Bowman’s trip through the vortex in 2001 Space Odyssey, Strange is thrown on a whistle-stop tour of his new dimensions as he’s tossed into outer space, sucked into an event horizon and spat out into a psychedelic realm where his gnarled hands sprout hundreds of tiny hands. It’s a spectacle unlike any other superhero movie we’ve seen before.
Derrickson also uses the cutting-edge special effects to do so much more with the action than just blow things up. The fight scenes are as slick and punishing as ever, but here they are set against Inception-style rotating corridors, folding cityscapes and, in one bravura sequence, a Hong Kong street that’s imploding in reverse. At times it feels like a Bourne film that’s been dropped into an Escher painting.
But what use are such dazzling set-pieces when the story they illustrate fails to compel? While screenwriters Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill should be praised for neatly subverting the portal-opens-above-a-city-finale trope – taking the Doctor Who route of talking the enemy into submission – the rest of the time we’re stuck with the same predictable pace and life lessons of the origin story. There’s nothing surprising about Strange’s redemptive arc. Does his exposure to unknown worlds humble his intellect? Of course it does. In turn, does this help him realise the lives of others are just as important as his own? You won’t need the Ancient One’s clairvoyant powers to have a good guess.
Cumberbatch still impresses as Strange. He’s very good at being insufferably brilliant and socially callous, and he knows how to inject just the right amount of twinkling charm to keep Strange likeable. His co-stars fair less well. Rachel McAdams and Chiwetel Ejiofor are wasted as Strange’s love interest and training buddy respectively, while Mads Mikkelsen is starved of screen time and lacks enough motivation to convince as the terrible, universe-ending threat we’re told he’s meant to be.
Making Doctor Strange was a risky move by Marvel – one that doesn’t quite pay off. The introduction of new, mind-warping dimensions has certainly freshened up the visual landscape of superhero movies, but until the filmmakers behind them start to push the same boundaries with their storytelling, the genre will remain trapped in its current cookie-cutter rut.
Runtime: 115 mins; Genre: Superhero; Released: 25 October 2016;
Director: Scott Derrickson; Writers: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill, Jon Spaihts;
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton