Warning: Minor plot spoilers throughout.
I’ve been a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since its inception way back when and have seen the majority of the films that have helped develop the diverse superheroes into one of the most successful movie franchises of all time.
In fact, thinking back, the only films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe I haven’t seen are The Incredible Hulk and Ant-Man. For The Incredible Hulk, my excuse was that I wasn’t really into the Marvel films back in 2008, it took me ages to catch up with them all. For Ant-Man it was one of those films that just passed me by, I saw the trailers and didn’t find myself yearning to go watch it.
I actually did the same with Guardians of the Galaxy and that turned out to be a really well made and fun film. It is very much my intention to go back and watch Ant-Man because after seeing his appearance in Captain America: Civil War, I definitely feel like I should give Paul Rudd’s interpretation of the shrinking and expanding superhero a proper shout.
I’ll be honest, the same process was happening with Doctor Strange. I had seen a trailer and I was intrigued by the casting of English actor Benedit Cumberbatch to the role of Stephen Strange, but I wasn’t particularly eager to get to the cinema and get it watched.This is despite the recent revelation that Doctor Strange will be appearing in the next Avengers film, yes THAT film, the one with basically everyone in it! In spite of this, the opportunity to go see the film cropped up last night and I can confidently say that I am very happy I went to see it.
I am not well versed in the ways of the Marvel graphic novels, per se, I know bits and pieces, more so about the bigger players in the universe but the finer details and origins, for example, I find I learn from more well-informed acquaintances or from the movies themselves. (On a side note, I plan to do some serious learning on the ways of Marvel in the future). For me though, Doctor Strange was really only a superhero from Marvel that I had seen in the LEGO series of games, so in terms of his abilities and back story I was going in blind (*awaits pitchforks and burning stakes at the door).
In my defense, I am not close minded and I can safely say I absolutely enjoyed the story that was told in Doctor Strange. After a rather sinister opening sequence with a rather odd-looking Mads Mikkelsen removing the head of a Librarian, the film moves to focus on our future hero, Stephen Strange, doing what he does best: saving lives. Providing he is safe in the knowledge that he can, without a doubt, save that person’s life. Stephen Strange is a well renowned and incredibly successful neurosurgeon, specializing in “interesting” and rare cases that will continue to increase his stature as a well revered physician. I was really struck in this opening sequence, the filming seemed to the point and focused on the importance of the hands, the most important tool in Dr. Strange’s medical arsenal. We also establish a personality for the good doctor, a confident, slightly arrogant but humorous “know it all” who takes pleasure in undermining his work colleagues, but not because he thinks he is better, but because he actually is. It’s hard not to draw comparisons to Tony Stark, both characters are successful in their fields and are very aware of it.
On his way to a charity benefit, to which his ex-lover but lasting love interest Christine Palmer (played by Rachel McAdams) luckily declines, he is involved in a devastating car crash off a cliff edge. I really liked that the cause of the accident was Strange himself, he was looking for his next big “win” and whilst looking at an X-Ray that had been messaged to his phone he loses control of his vehicle (let this be a lesson not to drive and use your phone at the same time peeps!). He became the master of his own downfall.
Of course, given his personality and character, he does not accept this to be his fault. When he comes too after the accident he learns that he has a multitude of surgical pins implanted into his hands, the most important appendage to him as a neurosurgeon. What follows is a desperate montage of Strange doing everything in his power to restore his previous function; experimental surgery, physiotherapy, untested stem cell research that could restore functionality to his hands. Losing his few friends, money and hope, Strange is left with more or less nothing. During a physiotherapy session he learns of a man who recovered from complete lower paralysis. Strange seeks this man out and he learns of a location in Kathmandu, Nepal and an order that may be able to heal the surgeons broken hands.
Buying a one-way ticket and having little of any hope left, Strange makes his way to Nepal where he is robbed but saved by a mysterious monk-esque figure who leads him to Kamar-Taj, the place he had been seeking. Once there, as a man of science, he has his ideals constantly challenged, unwilling to accept the importance of the human ‘spirit’ and a soul. Throughout these sequences we continue to see Strange for the rather loathsome, “I’m better than you” man that he is, even when he reaches his final bastion of help. He quickly has his mind opened by “The Ancient One” (played by Tilda Swinton) who shows him a raft of alternative dimensions via his ‘astral body’ in a superb and aesthetically astonishing scene. Strange’s response; “what was in that tea?“. Ever the sceptic, The Ancient One eventually accepts Strange into her order of Sorcerers and begins to imbue him with the knowledge to conjure and master the arts of magic.
Some great sequences follow in Strange’s training and the flow of success to broken man, to working to redemption is seamless and all the while there are talks of the impending threat from Mads Mikkelsen’s character Kaecilius, one of The Ancient Ones gifted students who is drawn to the powers of the Dark Dimension and the promise of everlasting life from Dormammu, the film’s villain. I found the training scenes really enjoyable and quite heartening to watch, despite this trauma he has had, he is determined to find a way to repair himself and get better and he doesn’t just click with it either. However, after a pivotal scene where he finally “gets it” his mastery of the sorceries is greatly accelerated and he becomes one of the most adept students in the sanctuary.
In his studies, Strange becomes acquainted with a variety of different abilities including one that allows him to traverse to various dimensions using a “sling ring”, vital for travel, if lost that sorcerer is lost in that world. One example is that, he is provided a training space in the ‘mirror dimension’ an exact replica of our world, except anything that happens in this world has no effect on the real world. A later scene provides an excellent trans-dimensional battle sequence which sees Strange take on a zealot whilst in his “astral body” whilst Christine, his ex and former colleague, does her best to keep Strange’s physical body alive. It was an excellent yet different take on a battle sequence, with a resolution I really enjoyed.
The major threat in the film is from Kaecilius’ plan to destroy the three sanctuaries protected by the sorcerers. These sanctuaries (based in Hong Kong, London and New York) provide a barrier from the other dimensions gaining access to the Earth, especially from the Dark Dimension, where Dormammu resides. The goal of Mads Mikkelsen and his crew is to unleash Dormammu on the Earth and reap the rewards of immortality that he will bestow on him and his zealots. Doctor Strange must use his new fledgling abilities to stop these more experienced warriors. Thanks to Strange’s desire to learn and find any and all answers, he not only learns key secrets about The Ancient One and the manipulation of time but is also able to hold his own against these skilled warriors throughout. He also demonstrates quick thinking and innovate use of his powers.
It never felt like Strange’s abilities were at all over played or that he seemed to become a master at his art in such a short time. There are great instances of that dotted throughout that emphasize the importance of on-going learning and that no one is ever perfect in what they do. Strange’s weapons are his hands, in spite of his injuries, by using them to cast spells, he is able to produce a variety of weapons that form over the hands. The possibilities that could be created are left to the imagination of those who are crafting them. Sorcerers are able to utilize the powers of special relics that contain a huge amount of power that manifest in various ways. Strange’s friend and guide in Kamar-Taj, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) informs him that a relic will pick you when you are ready, ala Harry Potter and the wands.
Enter the ‘Cloak of Levitation’.
I want to give a special mention to the cloak, as once the Cloak picks Strange does the superhero Doctor Strange come into his own. The Cloak has a character of its own, s insightful and helps guide Strange, though until Strange understands that (and even afterwards), there are some genuinely funny and heartwarming moments between the two. It is also animated brilliantly.
Doctor Strange is not your typical Marvel movie, the final ‘battle’, as it were, is done very differently to how we have seen before in other Marvel films. The villain never becomes an actual threat to Earth thanks to some ingenious thinking on Strange’s part and sees a quite humorous but harrowing sequence that eventually leads to the win for the good guys. He does this using the “Eye of Agamotto, which we later learn is the Infinity Stone of Time (*cue girlish screaming at that information, as anyone following the Marvel Universe will know what this means).
The message and tone throughout is relatable and thought-provoking. Strange is knocked back time and again, but his will is there, he knows there’s something he can do to redeem himself in both body and character and his determination is actually inspiring. My only gripe with the way that the character was portrayed throughout was when he has successfully learnt a lot of magic and is able to conjure and master these wondrous spells does he still want to just fix his hands and return to his old life of being a neurosurgeon. This didn’t sit well with me; being provided with the sight of, let alone the ability to craft these spells would surely be mind-blowing and probably give everyone a new perspective or purpose in life, but Strange is like “cool, so I can travel between dimensions, but I’ll just fix my fingers and set off back home.” (not an actual quote).
Having spent a lot of time watching Benedict Cumberbatch play Holmes in the brilliant Sherlock (season 4 starts January 1st 2017 woot!) it was really jarring initially to hear him speak with an American accent. In fact, he reminded me of Hugh Laurie’s House for a lot of it, but he looked and acted the part brilliantly. His supporting cast was all spot on too, there timings with jokes and how they portrayed their characters were excellent, especially a rather genius exchange between Mikkelsen and Cumberbatch. I must say that even though Mads Mikkelsen was excellent as the main enemy, he just didn’t look right in his monk/sorcerer outfit with the long ponytail.
The sounds and visual effects were stunning also. The effects employed when travelling through the various dimensions were incredible. Some scenes were on the same level of Inception in terms of mind-bending cinematography. In terms of actual production, it was easy to follow action sequences and it never felt like you were unsure of what was going on. Again kudos to the directors for those fight scenes, as they were well-choreographed and a pleasure to watch. The humor was great and of course, we always appreciate Stan Lee’s cameo.
Overall I would highly recommend Doctor Strange, not only does it provide a different take on the superhero origin story, but it provides a new opportunity for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Basically opening the door to an infinite number of potential dimensions certainly leaves room for some interesting developments in the future. For me, it was a heartwarming, touching and thrilling debut for the good Doctor. I genuinely felt like the film was conveying such a positive message of hope and determination to stay strong, even when things look their worst, on a more personal level, rather than a more generic message and it did this in a well executed and humorous tale. I look forward to when we next see Doctor Strange don his cloak of levitation and do battle with some otherworldly threat.
Oh, oh, OH! Do stay till the very end of credits. There are two extra scenes, in true Marvel form, one in the middle and one at the end. The one at the end is essentially setting up something awesome in the future.