Doctor Strange, directed by Scott Derrickson, is proof positive that Marvel is capable of putting out more than one type of cookie-cutter superhero movie.
Sure we’ve had Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool to reassure us that departing from the well-established, and granted highly successful, pattern that upholds the Marvel Cinematic Universe in all its hyperbolic grandeur, is not only possible but will eminently appeal to the same fans who flock to see Thor and Iron Man.
But they were outliers of a kind, departures so profound from the template that it was almost impossible to call them Marvel films; Doctor Strange on the other hand sits somewhere between The Avengers and Guardians, a hybrid narrative that artfully merges together the appealingly bombastic spectacle of The Avengers with some humour and deep philosophical introspection.
It’s not entirely successful in bringing this unusual superhero film creation to the big screen but it succeeds far more than it fails, giving it in the process a visually impressive look with humanity and heart, something few of its genremates manage with any kind of aplomb.
It is hampered, at least in the first third of a movie by a none-too-likable protagonist in Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch in masterfully imperious mode) whose arrogance as a top flight celebrity neurosurgeon is almost breathtakingly overpowering.
He is utterly consumed by his own talent and ambition, a music obsessive who knows the release of every last song ever recorded, and cannot seem to look past his own needs and interests, particularly when it comes to his on/off relationship with fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) who for god knows what reasons actually seems to like the guy.
It becomes apparent why his vaulting ego and narcissistic soul is given so much prominence when a car accident, entirely of his own making, takes away his ability to conduct surgeries, rendering his CNN-documented highly-egocentric life moot.
Being the man he is, he refuses to accept that there isn’t a way back from his entirely unwelcome new place in the universe, making him determined to reclaim the surgical throne he had so unwillingly vacated.
He even goes so far as to spend the last of his money travelling to Nepal on a quest for Kamar-Taj, a redoubt of the mystic arts preceded over by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), the mysteriously long-living sorcerer-in-chief who agrees to teach him about worlds beyond the material one which has left him so bereft.
The stage looks set at that point for your standard transformation story as Strange moves from sceptical materialist to mystical adherent, a man at ease with the idea of a neverending multiverse that holds both promise and danger in equal measure.
Thankfully the script by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, largely sidesteps this, with Strange’s ascent to the top of the mystic pile not as smooth as he would like, nor as convention would normally happily dictate.
In fact, so unconventional is his path to learning, wisdom and understanding that when he is accidentally caught in a fight with the film’s rather anodyne Big Bad Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson), a fallen Master of Kamar-Taj seeking eternal life from the Dark Dimension, a region of the multiverse outside of time, he is not always in complete control of his new gifts nor able to completely successfully prosecute a victory.
He is talented yes, a prodigy who is clearly marked for great things, but he is not an immediate success at the magical game, something that frustrates a man to whom knowledge is power as is his ability to successfully use it to get what he wants.
This less than smooth ascension to the mystical bigtime, accelerated by his ego and Kaecilius’s attacks on the three spellbound Sanctums in Hong Kong, L.A. and London that protect the Earth from subjugation by the evil lord of the Dark Dimension, Dormammu, provides much of the humour in the film, which refreshingly treats the Ancient One, Strange’s friend and colleague Master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejifor) and the librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) as thoroughly normal with extraordinary powers and circumstances.
It’s this balance of down-to-earth, impressive action on sets that fold, twist and bend Inception-style like Escher prints on steroids, and philosophical intimacy that establish Doctor Strange as an entirely unique Marvel beast.
It is not without its fault however.
Strange, while humbled later on and far more collaborative in outlook and deed, is nevertheless almost too arrogant for far much of the storyline, wearing out his welcome; Cumberbatch is a man born to the role, imbuing him with the necessary hubris, existential devastation and humility tempered with residual arrogance, but the character lacks the emotional smarts to endear him to audiences, leaving you less invested than you be in his fate.
The action pieces too, while visually impressive, are almost too much, consuming great swathes of great time at the expense of the narrative which is sometimes left to founder in large soulless set pieces of questionable worth and value.
Kaecilius too is a fairly lacklustre villain, possessed of dubious motivation and half-hearted execution whose eventual consignment to oblivion – this is giving nothing away; Marvel’s bad guys never prosper in the face of superhero virtue and firepower – merits little to no emotional impact, as does Strange’s victory over him.
Having said that however, it’s a fun engaging film that dares to trifle with the recipe and mostly pulls it off, a timely reminder once again to Marvel that it is possible to adjust the settings and still deliver a larger-than-life film that will, as surely as Strange is a man transformed, do stellar business at the box office, in pretty any dimension you care to name.