Reviews and entertainment articles by Dave Simpson
Following the fracas of Civil War, the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes a break from avenging to explore the realm of magic and mysticism with the long-awaited big screen debut of neurosurgeon turned sorcerer, Doctor Stephen Strange. Directed by Scott Derrickson, this far-out fourteenth contribution to the continuity touches upon some intriguingly unique ideas, but ultimately ends up suffering from a script that’s not quite as innovative as it could have been.
The initial setup isn’t too dissimilar to that of the original Iron Man movie. Strange is introduced as an egotistical but adept doctor before being involved in an incident that leaves him with a life-changing affliction. His quest for a cure takes him to a place called Kamar-Taj, where he gets more than he bargained for when he’s bestowed with an assortment of supernatural abilities and finds the fate of the world resting in his hands.
It’s a fairly formulaic origin tale that doesn’t reinvent the genre in any major way, but the trans-dimensional aspect of the story does allow for a lot of strikingly singular visuals. Starting with an enthrallingly trippy prologue, the film is full of mind-bending battles and psychedelic special effects that are unlike anything seen in a superhero movie to date. However, the hallucinogenic nature of the action can make it difficult to decipher what’s happening at times and unfortunately most of the best set-pieces are squeezed into the second act.
This represents one of several pacing problems that arise as the narrative unfolds. Even though the opening act makes a point of investigating what makes the title character tick while effectively teasing the main antagonist, Strange appears to cultivate an uncanny affinity for the mystical arts almost immediately after his tutelage starts. No sooner has he begun to get to grips with the concept of sorcery than he’s holding his own in combat against master magicians and making his instructors look like amateurs. It’s a jarringly abrupt development that serves no function other than to facilitate the inclusion of more action early on.
Rushing through Strange’s training to insert an affluence of exciting set-pieces into the middle of the movie also has an adverse effect on its finale. The second act is so fast-paced and pulse-pounding that it seems as if the writers ran out of steam ahead of the endgame. The final act features no major battle or grand climax. Instead, the story culminates in more of a philosophical face-off which, while admirably original and riveting in its own way, feels incredibly anti-climactic following the frantic psychotropic set-pieces that preceded it. Thankfully, the talent of the movie’s main star stops this disappointing denouement from falling completely flat on its face.
I doubt that there are many who would disagree that Benedict Cumberbatch is one of the best actors on the planet at the moment and his work here is unsurprisingly superlative. That being said, Strange’s personality is a little too reminiscent of Tony Stark at the start. The eponymous protagonist is initially portrayed as being rich, witty and pompous to the point that the only real difference between him and Stark is their choice of profession. But Cumberbatch can’t be blamed for the way in which the role is written and he does a good job of transitioning Strange into a less arrogant and more enlightened individual as the plot progresses.
As commendable as Cumberbatch’s performance is though, it’s his co-star Tilda Swinton who steals the show. The enigmatic nature of the Ancient One is by far the most fascinating facet of the film and Swinton succeeds in making Strange’s mentor extremely likable by endowing her with an endearing down to earth demeanour, despite the fact that she’s a seemingly ageless enchantress of untold power. It’s a shame then that the rest of the cast don’t end up faring so well.
Chiwetel Ejiofor has proven his prowess in many movies in the past, but he doesn’t make much of an impact here as Strange’s trainer turned sidekick, Karl Mordo. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the English actor’s performance, it’s just that Mordo feels somewhat redundant when Strange has the Ancient One to look to for guidance and fails to be of much use to the doctor when it comes to stopping the central threat.
The same is true of Strange’s co-worker/love interest, Christine Palmer, played by Rachel McAdams. The Notebook star is undeniably charming whenever she’s on screen and has good chemistry with Cumberbatch, but she’s only really there to shoehorn in a romantic subplot that has absolutely no bearing on the movie’s outcome.
Mads Mikkelsen also does the best he can with what he’s given as chief antagonist Kaecilius, demonstrating plenty of potential during the first two acts. However, a clichéd scheme and an underwhelming resolution results in yet another forgettable foe for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Despite these drawbacks, Doctor Strange is still an entertaining movie for the most part. Its plot is far from perfect, but it is at least refreshingly focused in the wake of the overblown narrative of Civil War. It’s just regrettable that unsteady pacing, poorly developed villains and an overreliance on exhausted superhero tropes mean that aside from offering up some extraordinary special effects, it doesn’t do much to differentiate itself from other films of its genre.
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