Film

Review: ‘Doctor Strange’ Might Be Marvel’s Most Daring Movie Yet

Get ready to have your mind blown all over the IMAX floor.

You’re a brilliant surgeon. Your hands are your tools, and your patients your canvas. One night, you’re driving like an asshole, looking down at an x-ray sent to you in your downtime, when you look up to see a car careening towards you. BANG! You spin off a cliff, turn end-over-end, and your hands get mangled beyond repair. What do you do next? Seek out mind-bendingly dangerous magical forces from a world beyond our own, naturally.

This is what happens when you live in the US and don’t have private health insurance, people. But it’s also Doctor Strange: the latest Marvel superhero movie to grace our screens.

Brandersnatch Crumbleflaps And The Question Of Whitewashing

By this point, you all know the score: Marvel have a vast cinematic universe unfolding before your eyes, and you either love it or hate it. And by “it”, I mean their incredibly adept rollout of at worst serviceable, and at best, exceptional superhero films. From Jon Favreau’s ball-breakingly solid Iron Man in 2008, to this year’s Captain America: Civil War (one of the best superhero films ever made), Marvel and Disney are truly nailing it. And with Jessica Jones and Luke Cage respectively, Marvel are making some of the best TV I’ve seen in years. DC, on the other hand, with their cinematic offal and their inconsistent Smallville-esque TV outings, seem haggard and childishly inept by comparison.

Doctor Strange is big, weird and magical, and is carried in part by a very solid ensemble cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Strange’s friend and colleague Mordo; Rachel McAdams is Doctor Christine Palmer, a gifted fellow surgeon with the presence of mind to not put up with Strange’s bullshit; Benedict Wong is the deadpan librarian, Wong; and Tilda Swinton plays Strange’s mentor, The Ancient One.

I’m acutely aware of how horrendously prolific and flippant Hollywood is when it comes to whitewashing roles, and you’re all undoubtedly familiar with the furore around casting Swinton in lieu of a Tibetan man. However, this character, this specific iteration of The Ancient One, was written for this film, and I’m pleased to say they actually justified the casting well. Swinton does a bloody good job, and the scenes with her and Cumberbatch jousting are among the best in the film.

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But Doctor Strange is an odd beast. I can’t see it polarising audiences, in that it isn’t particularly audacious from a narrative perspective, but it is trippy as hell. For a Disney/Marvel outing, it has sequences that would make Timothy Leary blush. At one point Stephen Strange is subjected to some major metaphysical histrionics, which given how button-down Marvel can be at times is downright brave. It also stars Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role; a man who my mother once called “Brandersnatch Crambleflaps”. I asked her to repeat herself, and she became flustered, stammering, “you know, you know. The tall, handsome British one”.

The British one. Which brings me to arguably the only substantial flaw in Doctor Strange, an otherwise enjoyable left-of-field superhero flick: Cumberbatch’s accent. It’s not just that I (and all of us, after his repeated turns as Sherlock Holmes) am used to hearing that scintillating British patter roll off his tongue. It’s that he doesn’t really nail the American accent, meaning that in the middle of a passionate diatribe or a slightly hammy but fun joke about Beyoncé, his accent cracks, and you’ll become acutely aware that you’re sitting in a movie theatre, watching an award-winning actor wearing a cape and pretending to cast spells.

It’s a bit like the moment where, after six straight hours of playing video games, the screen goes dark for the briefest of moments, and you see your gaunt, sweaty reflection, warped by the glass, staring back at you with pale skin and dead eyes. Or maybe that’s just me.

Old Tricks And New Treats

Marvel has, in recent years, recruited bold creative minds to helm their projects (Taika Waititi for the new Thor movie, Ryan Coogler for Black Panther, the Russo Brothers for Civil War, and so forth). For Doctor Strange, they’ve grabbed Scott Derrickson, writer and director of a handful of deeply flawed but undeniably stylish horror films (Sinister, Hellraiser: Inferno, Sinister 2). Thankfully, most of his worse tendencies have been sloughed off here by what is, largely, a pretty joyous script, which he helped write. Stephen Strange rises, falls (hard), and rises again, but his journey is structured so that you genuinely feel like he’s clawing his way back from the brink.

This is the real trick to making people give a shit about a hero. If a hero masters their abilities too quickly, any investment is sort of just farted away. This is why watching Tobey Maguire frantically swing away from a wall at the last minute, or watching Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark flail about while learning to master the Iron Man suit’s propulsion jets is so deeply satisfying. (Though, to be fair, watching Robert Downey Jr. do damn near anything is deeply satisfying.)

Doctor Strange is, appropriately, a strange Marvel movie; it’s dressed on the surface as a conventional hero narrative, but it’s filled with odd flourishes. It’s dripping in deep Eastern mysticism, it has just one American lead, the set design is utterly bonkers, and the VFX are the best I’ve seen in any Marvel movie, ever.

If you do see Doctor Strange — and you really ought to — I recommend seeing it at IMAX. Most cities don’t have a laser light show at a planetarium — the kind many enjoy on an ocean of hallucinogens — but with Doctor Strange in cinemas, you’ll have the next best thing at your fingertips.

Doctor Strange is in cinemas now.

Paul Verhoeven is host of Steam Punks on ABC3, and host of the weekly gaming podcast 28 Plays Later. He tweets from @PaulVerhoeven.