Review: DOCTOR STRANGE Brings Psychic Psychedelic Action

In Scott Derrickson's DOCTOR STRANGE, Benedict Cumberbatch shines in a sky full of diamonds...

Editor, Europe; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
Review: DOCTOR STRANGE Brings Psychic Psychedelic Action
Once upon a time, when Iron Man turned out to be quite watchable and it became known what exactly Disney and Marvel were planning with their "Cinematic Universe", we were wondering how the hell they were going to fit in decidedly weird (or outdated) characters like Thor and Captain America. But lo-and-behold: by the time the first Avengers film arrived, those questions hadn't just been answered, but conquered. The same thing happened when Guardians of the Galaxy was announced: doubts and outright scorn made way for a hugely successful and profitable film, one I definitely want to see the sequel of.

Making outrageous characters not just likeable, but plausible enough to fit in the Cinematic Universe is a gift. It's a good one to have too, as most superheroes (and definitely Marvel's) have pulpy origin stories which are quaint at best, and offensively ludicrous at worst. Which may be fine in comics which where seen as disposable distractions, but a right royal problem in the "must-succeed" world of expensive films.

Which brings us to Scott Derrickson's Doctor Strange, who literally brings another dimension to the mix: magic. Until now, the team behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe have always taken great pains to avoid the supernatural to seem, ehm... supernatural. They kept things always science-fiction-y enough to not be too offensive for Christians. So how were they going to deal with a Sorcerer Supreme? For in the comics, Stephen Strange is the guy you call when the Hulk gets occult nightmares, the X-Men have to take on Dracula, or Spiderman has been bitten by a werewolf.

The answer: they've re-used their Thor get-out-of-occult-jail-free card of making it all just another kind of science. And while that makes Doctor Strange very much another run of the mill Marvel film, stuck comfortably somewhere between Iron Man and Thor, it is all done so well and with so much style and wit that it's a pleasure to watch.

The plot is about Stephen Strange, a brilliant-but-arrogant neurosurgeon with an immense ego and a God-like reputation for skill. When an accident leaves him unfit for work, Stephen's world crashes to a halt, and he takes increasingly desperate measures to try and fix his condition. He discovers a similar patient who miraculously recovered in Nepal, but when Strange travels there to investigate how the man got healed, he runs into a group of mystics who defend the universe from other-dimensional horrors. After some initial scepsis and sarcasm (and one hell of a trippy demo!), Doctor Strange decides to join the group and learn its secrets, to see if he can heal himself. But.... yeah, the other-dimensional horrors have plans of their own.

Benedict Cumberbatch makes a fine Stephen Strange: aloof, witty, ultra-intelligent and an immense self-pitying asshole. The script gives him plenty to play with, and Cumberbatch keeps you caring about the character even when Strange is at his most unsympathetic. The other actors are fine too if often somewhat wasted in their roles. Rachel McAdams and especially Mads Mikkelsen (!) do nothing wrong here as "the former love interest" and "the adversary", but they are mere asides in the story which focuses totally on Strange. Chiwetel Ejiofor fares better as fellow wizard Mordo, by sheer reason of having some sort of character arc attached to him.

And then we get to Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, one of the most discussed and reviled casting choices this year. Playing an old Celtic druid in a very diverse group of wizards, her role turns out to be perhaps less offensive than initially feared, though you can of course still question the politics behind the character-creation decisions.

So basically what we get is another Iron Man film, with a slightly different Iron Man in a slightly different setting. But this is where the film shines! For Marvel takes the mystic subject matter and has seven shades of fun with it, resulting in some unbelievably eye-popping action sequences. The first time Strange gets his mind opened to the other universes is the most psychedelic affair I've yet experienced in a 3D-IMAX, and an early fight which turns the city of London into an enemy-grinding gearbox is absolutely fantastic. Also, New York gets a kaleidoscopal re-imagining which takes some cues from Inception and proceeds to run with it. Escher fans can rejoice!

I'll forgive a film a lot if it manages to show me something I haven't seen before, and Doctor Strange scores majorly on that front. Combined with its wit in telling a mundane origin story in an intelligent way, Doctor Strange has enough in it to forgive its flaws, its formulaic nature, and its endless shoehorning into the Marvel (read: Avengers) mould. Everyone in my group of friends who has seen it enjoyed themselves, so I have no qualms in saying that if you're into big-budget spectacular entertainment, this one comes recommended.

Doctor Strange is currently on release in several Asian and European countries, with 3D-IMAX versions included, and will premiere in the United States this Friday the 4th of November.

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