Will you be spellbound?
Did we think the new Marvel movie was kind of magic?
released OUT NOW! 12a | 115 minutes Director scott derrickson Cast Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, rachel Mcadams, Benedict Wong
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is such an established phenomenon it’s easy to forget it’s built on a chain reaction of risk.
From entrusting a superhero tentpole to the tarnished star of Robert Downey Jr to the very idea of an entwined blockbuster universe – a revolution that soon became standard Hollywood exec-think – it’s been a succession of smart but somewhat chancy creative choices.
So why does Doctor Strange feel such a gamble, such an outlier in a genre-jumping slate that’s already given us the techno-Tolkien of Thor and the punky, smirking space opera of Guardians Of The Galaxy? The character’s embedded in Marvel lore, after all. Summoned from the astonishing, psychedelic imagination of Steve Ditko, he was part of the first wave of Marvel icons alongside Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Hulk. Surely the Sorcerer Supreme’s less box office roulette than a talking raccoon?
Scott Derrickson’s film sticks to the big beats of the origin story. We meet Strange as a swaggering, glory-seeking neurosurgeon, another brittle-edged entry in Benedict Cumberbatch’s gallery of charmless charmers and winning sociopaths (a laconic American drawl distances him from Sherlock but adds a visible layer of performance). Caught in a spectacular car crash, he suffers serious damage to his masterly hands and, spiralling into despair and stubble, heads East in search of a cure.
While the comic book Strange found salvation in a remote Himalayan kingdom inspired by the pre-GPS exoticism of Lost Horizon, the movie’s eager to combat any hint of romanticised otherness. As hidden cities go, Kamar-Taj is positively gap year. And Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One is far from the wizened, gnomic figure scratched by Ditko’s pencil – she’s androgynous, smiley and desperately contemporary. “She never talks about her past,” we’re told. Maybe she’s secretly the same backpacker’s guru Swinton played in The Beach, 20 chakraexploring years later.
As the Ancient One initiates Strange into the occult, Derrickson initiates us into the wows. There’s a wonderful velocity to the effects sequence that first hurls Strange across the dimensions. Playing like the Doctor Who title sequence on a bad acid trip, it pushes the visual language of the MCU into extraordinary new places, taking clear cues from Ditko’s molecular dreamscapes. Elsewhere Derrickson makes the act of spell-casting seem visceral, elemental: fiery runes are carved from the air, spitting sparks like welding gear. Portals to other realities whirl like Catherine wheels.
Perhaps it’s the very idea of magic that makes this more of a Marvel gamble than usual. Maybe that’s why the movie does its best to demystify the mystic arts,
Pushes the visual language of the MCU to new places
nailing down the nebulous and the unknowable as a simple branch of physics. Magic, we’re assured, is “the source code that shapes reality”. Endless talk of quantum multiverses and spatial paradoxes may allow Strange to fit seamlessly alongside the Avengers but it also steals something away, something special. It feels like a post-mortem, not an explanation; magic laid on a slab and picked at with a scalpel.
The plot’s perfunctory – Mads Mikkelsen’s immortality-chasing mage steals a forbidden ritual to unleash a demonic presence upon the world – but it’s patched with Marvel’s trademark flippancy (there’s a priceless Beyoncé gag), some equally witty effects sequences involving Strange’s sentient cloak, come to life like a classic Disney creation, and some charismatic performances: Benedict Wong makes his namesake a hilariously deadpan badass while Cumberbatch, angular as quartz, not only looks the part but adds mischief and humanity to one of Marvel’s more aloof heroes. Shame Rachel McAdams finds herself saddled with a criminally underwritten role. She even gets to say, “I don’t understand what’s happening,” god help her.
While the climax reduces one of Ditko’s great villains to the kind of gaseous, generic menace found in too many mediocre superhero movies, it’s at least preceded by some great inventive action sequences. Skyscrapers buckle, streets twist and concertina, cities reduced to puzzlebox playgrounds. It’s Inception pushed to the limit.
You wish the linear, by-thenumbers storytelling had some of the surprise of those twisting streets but there’s ambition and promise in Marvel’s magical quarter. Doctor Strange nudges the doors of perception. Maybe a sequel will kick them wide open. Maybe all it needs is a little more risk.
“Don’t suppose you have Netflix?”
The bus was late but at least the shelter was nice.