Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams
Director: Scott Derrickson
Running Time: 115 mins
Synopsis: Brilliant neuro-surgeon Stephen Strange has his hands brutally mangled in a car accident. Searching the world for a solution he comes across the mystical Ancient One (Swinton) and learns the art of sorcery, coming up against the evil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).
Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige, the true Captain America of the MCU, has spoken of the desire to phase out the principal core characters of the hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe (Cap, Iron Man et al) and slowly bring in a new generation of heroes. He couldn’t have picked a better character to start this transition with than Dr Stephen Strange. Bearing a number of similarities with one Mr Tony Stark and that debut triumph. We have an arrogant but brilliant scientist, a new universe to explore (this time the trippy mulitverse), a villain who uses the heroes technology (or in this case magic) for ill will, and a generous dollop of audience unfamiliarity. Once again Marvel have exceeded expectations with a terrific inventive introduction.
Opening on a brief but tantalising action set-piece involving Mikkelsen’s villain and Tilda Swinton flinging magical spells at each other with glee. As the environments spin and twist in a dazzling 3D display it becomes clear this is going to be like no other Marvel film to date. From here we are introduced to Cumberbatch’s Strange. An arrogant genius whose cockiness is captured in a few quick exchanges between former flame Christine Palmer (an underwritten but charming McAdams) and a fellow doctor (a badly wigged and intensely small role for Michael Stuhlberg) before a breathtakingly OTT car accident cuts his career short. Twisted hands means he can no longer perform groundbreaking operations and the anguish this causes is movingly portrayed by Cumberbatch. Seeking out other means of fixing his hands puts him in contact with the Swinton’s bald headed Ancient One and her team of mystical monks.
Barring that mind-bending opening fight the opening 25mins are relatively subdued, in a good way. He may be arrogant and rich but there’s none of the loud showboating that Mr Stark is so fond of. Here it is more akin to Benedict’s Sherlock, a fierce intelligence coupled with a lack of care for others feelings. As with his winning performance as Mr Holmes, Cumberbatch plays all this arseholeness with a degree of playfulness and humour so you never outright dislike him.
Once Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo come into the picture the wheels begin to kick in. The moment she appears on-screen she owns it, contrary to the all the controversy surrounding her casting (all smoke no substance), Swinton is a genius choice. There is a cheekiness and classiness to her performance, making all this talk around astral realms and spirit searching very palatable. Not to mention seeing her tossing around beams of magic is repeatedly enjoyable. The rest of the cast are terrifically on form too. Ejiofor begins as a patient warm teacher but slowly reveals inner torment. Benedict Wong is a funny delight as the mystical librarian. But unfortunately McAdams’s love interest is somewhat underwritten, she seems to be there just to perform surgical procedures on different characters rather than being fully formed herself. Her innate charm and easiness of performance does elevate the thin role though.
The final piece of this high calibre cast we must mention is Mads Mikkelsen’s villain. This is where Marvel’s regular flaws come to the fore, and they are prevalent throughout, as he is pretty flat. Mikkelsen is incapable of being bad but he isn’t helped by a cliched plan involving end of the world histrionics. The script sees him spouting the familiar lines involving a warped version of the heroes philosophy. It isn’t too much of a concern though as most origin stories suffer from having to focus on the hero’s journey in order for us to fall in love with them, leaving the villain as a means to get said hero to his eventual ascension.
Familiarity spreads throughout the overall story. We all know that Strange’s arrogance will be alleviated by the desire to save the world. Although a scene between him and Swinton is extremely moving and makes his evolution feel earnt. Less well earnt however is his surprisingly swift learning of his newfound powers. Starting off an ineffectual naive student, he becomes relatively proficient after only one strenuous test. The script is equal parts clever and silly. A few of the laughs fall flat, but the sardonic wit laced throughout particularly from Cumberbatch is delightful. Plus it was always going to be tough to make such names as Agamotto and Dormammu sound anything other than silly even with award winners like Swinton.
The real standout here though is the spectacular visuals. Offering glimpses of imagery we’ve never witnessed before, barring a snippet of the Quantum Realm at the end of Ant-Man, it is a trippy inventive delight. Cities folding in on themselves, hands coming out of fingertips, flights through multi-dimensions, and the manipulation of time are just some of the things we witness as the film proceeds. It adds a palpable urgency and thrill to the action scenes. Coming off as similar to Inception in the trailers it is actually anything but. This picture concerns itself with more fanciful playful ideas rather than the grounded nature of Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece. Witnessing Strange conjure terrific beams of light into whips and lassos gives me chills as to his inevitable meeting up with The Avengers, particularly the expected withering put downs we can expect from Tony Stark. I haven’t even touched on the superb use of 3D and easily Marvel’s best utilisation of the format, it gives added depth and psychedelia to the already out there images.
Props for this must go to director Scott Derrickson who directs with a steady hand and what looks like a shed load of mushrooms given to his effects teams. Other credit should also go to Michael Giacchino’s brilliant unique score, which will easily go down as Marvels best yet, most of their previous scores have fallen into generic noise. Here’s hoping they invite him back for further composing throughout the MCU.
Looking at the evidence here that MCU has a very promising future ahead. If Kevin Feige and his team continue to push themselves forward into unexpected worlds such as this, albeit with a comfortable fallback in their familiar storywork, then the eventual disappearance of Iron Man and crew will be something to celebrate rather than mourn.
Verdict: Inventive trippy visuals, a stellar cast at the top of their game and a welcome dose of sardonic humour leaven the somewhat predictable nature of this origin story. A welcome shot of weirdness to the MCU, and a tantalising glimpse of changes to come. Oh and don’t forget to stay through the credits.