Doctor Strange – Review (*** 1/2)

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While it may not represent the most ambitious break away from Marvel’s winning superhero flick formula, Doctor Strange does nevertheless bring enough mind-bending invention and unexpected genre subversion to make it a winningly quirky triumph.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the world’s top neurosurgeon, but after a car crash leaves him with career-ending nerve damage, he humours unconventional healing practices in order to get his life back, becoming a mentor in the mystic arts to the all-powerful Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). However, when Strange becomes caught in the middle of a war between the mystics and a wayward former disciple, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), he must decide whether once again becoming a master surgeon is his only calling in life.

When the core of this movie is examined, it does ring rather familiar to the majority of the origin stories we’ve encountered in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, probably sharing the most DNA with Iron Man of all. That said, while last year’s Ant-Man felt decidedly safe in spite of its wacky premise, Strange does enough to occupy a firm middle-ground between playing to the MCU’s studio-mandated house template and daring to go to more interesting places.

Where else in this gargantuan movie franchise can you see eye-meltingly beautiful, Escher-esque cascading landscapes on which magical battles are fought? Where else are the lazily forced romances cast aside in favour of mere friendship? It’s clear that the film has at least taken a few notes from what hasn’t worked so well in previous MCU films; the ugly, FOX TV-esque cinematography of several of these movies is nowhere to be seen here, replaced with a splendid lensing job by Ben Davis (who also served as DP on the vibrant Guardians of the Galaxy) alongside visual effects that realise the potential of time and dimension-hopping with exemplary elan.

Yes, Strange is a successful human plucked from his fairly normal life and plunged into an impossible world, and of course, he ends up opting to remain a Sorcerer by movie’s end, but what fills the lean 115 minutes is mostly strong character building, wry humour, scintillating action and a confident, LSD-infused trippiness.

The performances here are remarkable throughout; Cumberbatch is a note-perfect Strange, though Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One steals countless scenes from him, and Chiwetel Eijofor and Benedict Wong as veteran mystic Baron Mordo and gatekeeper Wong aren’t that far behind either. It’s probably fair to say that Rachel McAdams’ surgeon Christine Palmer is the most under-served, but as mentioned, she thankfully isn’t pigeonholed into a perfunctory love interest role.

Though Mikkelsen gingerly avoids the Marvel villain “curse”, he’s basically still a mid-tier baddie; he gets time to actually emote and espouse an interesting ideology, which puts him leagues ahead of Guardians’ Ronan and Thor: The Dark World’s Malekith, but he’s still relatively insubstantial compared to everything else going on around him.

Writer-director Scott Derrickson’s (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Sinister) stock is sure to shoot up massively here, working with a budget hugely in excess of his usual, but rising to the occasion and turning in one of the more visually disciplined MCU efforts to date (barring some occasionally disorientating editing). It sure as Hell helps that he has such a wide palette of visuals and ideas to work with, but it goes without saying that he’ll be in high demand on the blockbuster circuit after this.

Doctor Strange doesn’t reinvent Marvel at the movies in a particularly substantial way, but it does provide welcome ripostes to some of the franchise’s most glaring flaws, and serves up a jaw-dropping visual feast sure to leave audiences begging for more.

*** 1/2

Doctor Strange is in UK cinemas now and US cinemas November 4th

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