Will you be spell­bound?

SFX - - Contents - Nick Setch­field

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.

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