With Robert Downey Jr likely to throw his Iron Man suit on the scrapheap within the next two years, there will soon be a gap in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) for an obnoxious but brilliant playboy turned world saviour. Enter Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, a hero of the silver age of comics who was almost as beloved by the counterculture of the 1960s as the Silver Surfer.
The Doctor Strange comics — with their hallucinogenic illustrations by Spider-Man co-creator, Steve Ditko and their embrace of occult themes — attracted acidhead fans such as Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Beyond the 1970s, however, the Sorcerer Supreme has been a supporting player in Marvel’s comics rather than a major commercial force.
With its US$165m bet on Doctor Strange, Marvel is hoping that Cumberbatch’s charisma will do for Doctor Strange what Downey Jr’s star power did for Iron Man. In many ways, beneath its mind-bending visuals, Doctor Strange is a throwback to Iron Man 1, the first brick in the increasingly ungainly edifice that is the MCU.
That gives it a pleasing simplicity and focus compared to the rambling, cross-film storylines and jumbled character casts of the more recent MCU efforts like Captain America: Civil War. There are some hints of things to come in Avengers: Infinity War and Thor: Ragnarok, but Doctor Strange feels like a self-contained film rather than an extended promo for the next movie in the MCU saga.
It’s Cumberbatch’s vehicle, with the Sherlock star a perfect match to the role of the self-involved, sardonic and arrogant neurosurgeon, Doctor Stephen Strange. Following a car accident that leaves him with irreparable nerve damage in his hands, Strange turns to Eastern mysticism for healing. An encounter with a Celtic guru called the Ancient One (an enigmatic Tilda Swinton, channelling the considerable gravitas she can master) exposes him to a world of astral projection, alternate universes, even mastery over time and space.
He faces a choice as he masters the ability to manipulate reality with magic: take on the mantle of a sage who protects the Earth from spiritual dangers in the same way the Avengers guard it against threats of a more physical origin or go back to his life as a medical rock star. Like the original Iron Man, it’s a more personal and focused hero’s journey, one that dares to make its lead character flawed and even unlikeable at first.
Doctor Strange is one of the most visually interesting Marvel films to date, straying from the sometimes-anodyne house style of the MCU. Director Scott Derrickson — best known for the big budget disaster film The Day the Earth Stood Still and some low-cost horror gigs — brings an inventive approach to Doctor Strange.
At times, it borrows from the shifting, Escher-like landscapes of Christopher Nolan’s Inception and the distorted physics of The Matrix; in other moments, it feels like an acid flashback to Ditko’s original illustrations or to the cover of a psychedelic rock album. It’s the rare big-budget film enhanced by viewing in 3D, whether it’s to appreciate reality folding in on itself or the teeming chaos of a busy city in Nepal.
Apart from Tom Hiddlestone’s Loki, the MCU has always struggled to make its villains as memorable as its heroes, despite the many fine actors it has recruited. Doctor Strange continues in that tradition, unforgivably underusing the talents of Mads Mikkelsen, who comes across a bland mix of muddled motives. Rachel McAdams also phones it in as Strange’s erstwhile girlfriend; faring better is Chiwetel Ejiofor as one of the Ancient One’s trusted disciple and Strange’s signature garment, a levitating coat with a mind of its own and some good comic timing.
Doctor Strange is as nimble and playful as the best MCU films, delivering some great character moments and zingers between the action scenes. It zips so cheerfully to its climax that the plot holes almost don’t matter. There’s nothing truly new here — apart from the imaginative visuals and the far-out spiritual themes — but Doctor Strange is so well executed and such fun that it’s the best superhero film of the year.