Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton
Following the brilliance of Civil War, October 2016 saw Marvel Studios looking to continue their “Phase Three” with a movie which was absolutely crackling with potential. The magic side of the MCU had only been very loosely touched on before, so the prospect of seeing Doctor Stephen Strange unleashing his distinctive brand of weirdness on the big screen had fans whipped into a frenzy – a state that was only enhanced by the dizzying, Inception-esque aesthetic of the early trailers.
So let’s start with the positives – the first act of the movie is pretty damn great. An intense, edgy introduction to Stephen Strange, packed with plenty of opportunities for Cumberbatch to flex his not insurmountable acting muscle. Yes, the parallels to Iron Man are difficult to ignore, with yet another egotistical genius being done in by his own hubris, but at least it feels different in style and tone to a lot of the cookie-cutter MCU offerings that had come before it.
However, almost like clockwork, as soon as the second act of the film begins, things make a jarring jolt back to the established Marvel formula. The all-too-familiar visual gags, goofy one-liners and slapstick moments serve as yet another forced reminder that, as an audience, we’re not actually supposed to be taking any of this seriously. It’s all just comics, right? Frustrating isn’t the word.
Almost every significant character or storyline beat seemingly has to have a punchline directly after it, diminishing their impact considerably. Don’t get me wrong, I love humour in movies, particularly comic book movies, and I wasn’t exactly expecting a dark, violent, Netflix-esque Doctor Strange on the big screen. But come on, can we at least let something feel like it matters for once?
Making things worse (and sing along at home if you know the words), Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius serves as the latest in a long line of paper-thin Marvel baddies, finding any attempts at gravitas – or flexing his own world-class acting muscle – undermined by the aforementioned gags. Mikkelsen is a truly fantastic actor, one of my personal favourites in fact, so seeing him become yet another Ronan or Malekith here is incredibly frustrating.
It’s not all negative, though. Some of the humour is legitimately funny and well-timed, and the supporting cast – Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tilda Swinton in particular – do a fantastic job with what they’re given. Plus, as should have been expected from the trailers and promotional images, it looks absolutely amazing, even if it does perhaps get a little too much at times. I mean, if you’ve seen New York turning itself into a twisted M.C. Escher painting once, you’ve seen it a hundred times, right?
Also in the “positives” column, Cumberbatch exudes his familiar leading man swagger as Stephen Strange, and the structure of the final battle is a thing of brilliance, taking what is a fairly humorous approach to an overpowered villain and somehow managing to make it work (take note, Ronan the Accuser dance-off).
Overall though, I still can’t help but look at this as a missed opportunity to do something truly unique with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the introduction of magic and the lack of any ties to the established franchises – for the time being, at least – the potential was definitely there to cut loose and deliver a bold new blueprint for what a comic book movie could be.
As it turned out though, this ended up feeling like just the latest cookie-cutter Marvel movie, fresh off the assembly line. There are some great moments for sure, and we get a solid introduction for a character that promises to be one of the lynchpins of the MCU moving forwards, but for me, Doctor Strange ends up as a gorgeous but disappointingly superficial affair.