Doctor Steven Strange is a brilliant surgeon, and he knows it. He revels in correcting his co-workers, lives a life of suits, supercars and penthouses and will decline patients if he thinks they will tarnish his perfect success record. After surviving a horrific car accident his crippled hands hinder him from his life’s work. His security and livelihood haemorrhaging, he is led to the seedy streets of Kathmandu to find a group of healers who have been known to bring people back from life changing injuries. It is there that his very strange story truly begins.
We open up in the traditional blockbuster style with a spectacular action scene involving the streets of London being turned 90 degrees to the left. Buildings fold in on themselves to become concrete lumber mills. As the trailers displayed, this is Inception on drugs. (Can’t advise taking drugs during some scenes. Trips will be had.) We’re then introduced to Dr. Steven Strange mid-surgery who is quickly established as a pompous ass and then quickly torn down, becoming a bitter cripple who lashes at his few remaining friends.
He’s taken down another peg (in mind-melting fashion) by Tilda Swinton’s androgynous Ancient One when he travels to Tibet for some fringe medicine. This is when Doctor Strange sinks its teeth in. Part Jedi Academy, part school of witchcraft and wizardry, we get a brilliant and very entertaining training section where Strange overcomes his disabilities though his arrogance threatens to return full force.
The movie’s final act moves at double the pace with Mads Mikkelsen glam-rock villain Kaecilius breathing down Strange’s neck. The fight scenes are high on dazzle and low on clarity thanks to rapid cuts and interdimensional sparks flying thick and fast. Fortunately the finale avoids the huge aerial battle that the MCU has become known for and instead goes for a tense and creative standoff between to seemingly very mismatched opponents.
Cumberbatch is terrific and an obvious choice. He can play likable, self-important asses in his sleep. Something of an intertextual gem here, Benedict Cumberbatch who is primarily known for his Sherlock Holmes playing basically an incarnation of Dr. Gregory House, a Sherlock ripoff himself. When it comes to pain, affection, humour and or just being damn stylish, Cumberbatch conjures up something tangible every time.
Mentoring him is a triumvirate of Swinton’s Ancient One, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo and Benedict Wong’s Wong (convenient). Swinton, like Cumberbatch, doesn’t have to try to pull of something mysterious. She imbues a potentially two-dimensional character (who could have been all lecture and posing) with intriguing and flawed humanity and having her turn up to a throw down excites; she turns situations on their heads, literally.
Ejiofor and Wong are terrific supporters. Mordo is the stoic, damaged trainer with a rigid moral border. He also delivers the movie’s wittiest line. As for Wong, he goes full deadpan and is the perfect complement to Cumberbatch’s mischievousness. Here’s hoping there’s plenty more of him in future Marvel episodes.
Mikkelsen’s zealot Kaecilius is far from being a memorable Marvel villain, something inherent in the MCU (Loki being the exception). He is at his most interesting when actually off screen, when the band of heroes discuss him and how Strange walks dangerously close to the path Kaecilius followed. As for Rachel McAdam’s fellow surgeon Christine Palmer, she is sadly underused and her character feels mostly like an obligation.
The visuals can be absolutely staggering. Strange is given an out of body experience and zapped through a plethora of infinite dimensions. The Kubrickian DNA courses throughout that particular sequence then is refined into the Nolan-esque street bending in a later fight scene that perhaps crosses the line for being downright confusing. Strange runs from Kaecilius who then turns the world sideways. Strange lands on a building. Kaecilius parts it in half. Then Strange is upside-down. Then he’s parallel with Kaecilius. The now-iconic rotating corridor of Inception has been made all the better for its simplicity (a word that does not describe how the scene came to be.)
Doctor Strange’s few shortcomings cannot blot out the fun and entertainment on offer here. It can reside among the better instalments in the Marvel universe with its solidly written and performed characters and out-of-this-dimension visual effects. Go see it and have a blast. Michael Keyes