Like a British storm being given an oddly kind name, who’d call something that tore down fences Doris, Marvel films are now regularly put into our cinemas. And apart from a few exceptions, all have been very good, with the odd one breaching into the great category. They are a nice reliability in this world, but that’s also the issue. It all follows a very strict formula, one that works, but one that is starting to tire a bit as we enter into Phase 3. But maybe things can be livened up a bit with the release of Doctor Strange?
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game) is one of the best brain surgeons in the world, but he is also incredibly arrogant and disliked by many of his peers. But when he crashes his car, his hands are near destroyed by the surgery needed to save them, he can no longer do any surgery. In order to try and return his hands to the condition they were before, he heads off east and meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, We Need To Talk About Kevin) who maybe be able to help him.
So the first thing that marks it out from the rest of the Marvel crop is its visual style, which is also the strongest aspect of the film. Because of them magic that both the heroes and the villains possess, they can seriously mess up the world around them and make everything look like Inception on steroids. There is a big action scene in New York in the middle of the film which takes advantage of this and boy is it awesome. It’s hard to describe but with all the buildings seemingly falling apart and gravity constantly being switched, it makes the rather standard action beats even more exciting while also distracting us from the fact this is another world in peril story.
But while those visual effects are a lot of fun to watch and they make the action great, it is probably the trippy style of the visuals that really elevate this film. So when Strange meets The Ancient One for the first time, he doubts some of the mystical stuff she has been saying. So to prove him wrong, he opens his third eye and basically sends him through the acid trip of a lifetime. It is amazing. Seriously, I’m pretty sure the visual effect artists were on LSD when they made this because it’s the only explanation for how mad it gets. There are hands growing out of other hands, Cumberbatch is flung throughout time and space, he gets chucked into eyeballs and separates into a million other Cumberbatches which will make the Sherlock fans happy, it’s just a visual delight. And it’s all done under the narration of Swinton, who manages to get away with spouting a load of exposition because of the imagery on screen. It’s outstanding.
Away from the acid trips, there’s plenty to like as everyone puts in a great performance. Ok, so Cumberbatch has a dodgy New York accent but he can play the cocky genius character to a tee, it’s basically his raison d’etre at this point in time. And while Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One caused a lot of (rightful) controversy because she’s a white woman playing a part that was Asian in the comics, she is brilliant in the role. She brings a lot of calm to this world of madness and is a symbol of dignified excellence, a very good contrast to what Cumberbatch is doing in his role. No one else really gets a time to shine, but Rachel McAdams (Midnight in Paris) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave) do good work with what they are given.
I suppose we better talk about Doctor Strange’s villain as this has been a constant weakness of the Marvel times. This time we get Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale) who wants to restart the world so he can live forever. Or something like that. He’s definitely not the worst villain that Marvel have every put out because there’s plenty to like. The guys behind the scenes have done a very good make up job as whatever is going on with his eyes marks him out from the rest of the pack, and the plot does enough to give him a sympathetic back story but still make him enough of a maniac that he isn’t your hero. Yet despite this and a very good performance from Mikkelsen, another guy could play a villain in his sleep, it just quite doesn’t connect. Maybe it’s because of the magic distancing the plot from reality, maybe it’s because he’s not the big bad. But while Kaecillius is in the upper echelon of Marvel villains, he isn’t great. He’s merely good.
But that’s not the biggest problem. And to detail this problem to you, let me just describe this plot. A cocky genius has a terrible tragedy happen to him. In order to save himself he goes back to basics and finds himself becoming a hero and saving the world in the process. Yes that does sound familiar because it’s the origin plot to so many different Marvel movies, most notably Iron Man and Thor. I get that it works and yeah, there’s no real issues to it here. It’s just that we have seen it a lot before and if we keep seeing it, we are eventually going to be incredibly bored. There are a few cosmetic changes to this plot, but not enough to make you forget you are essentially watching a mystical remake of Iron Man.
Like pretty much every Marvel movie, Doctor Strange is a good movie. It’s very fun to watch, has some great action scenes and has a lively script which keeps the movie motoring on even when a building isn’t being flipped around by magic. It’s definitely worth a watch, especially so you can keep up with Marvel before the Infinity Wars start in the next Avengers movie. But that doesn’t mean you can ignore that Marvel are recycling their plots at an alarming rate and that it will be this that kills the superhero genre if it continues. Not a terrible flop, but a a dull slide into irrelevance.