Film review | Doctor Strange: Just what the doctor ordered

Marvel Studios gets a welcome jolt of colour with this Benedict Cumberbatch starring dimension-hopping romp • 3.5/5

A Study in Emerald: Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC’s Sherlock) takes an interdimensional route on the Marvel Studios bandwagon to embody its trademark sorcerer, Doctor Stephen Strange
A Study in Emerald: Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC’s Sherlock) takes an interdimensional route on the Marvel Studios bandwagon to embody its trademark sorcerer, Doctor Stephen Strange

The trouble with Marvel’s colossal movie franchise is, first of all, that it is in fact a franchise: meaning that ‘brand integrity’ – and not creative nous or inspiration – will remain its raison d’etre. So it sacrifices flavour and texture on the altar of editorial coherence, in a way that certainly places it ahead of its main competitor – DC Comics – as far as watchable cinematic adaptations of their most beloved properties go, but that also ensures the aftertaste is, well, a bit bland. 

For all their epic scale and confident character beats, Marvel’s produce – from 2008’s Iron Man down to the ‘assembled’ Avengers films – all move to the same clip of the established hero’s journey, and all bear the safe but numbing ‘orange and teal’ visual palette. The latter tendency is particularly depressing, given that these are supposed to be adaptations of primary-coloured, stirring flights of the imagination plucked straight from our childhood.

Thankfully, with their latest blockbuster Doctor Strange – directed by Sinister helmer Scott Derrickson and starring BBC’s Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch – Marvel have managed to change visual gears… even if they remain on more or less the same track as their editorially-approved trajectory as far as overall plotting is concerned.

When the brilliant but arrogant surgeon Dr Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) suffers a car accident that deprives him of his hands, not only does he set about alienating his friends and colleagues – most notably ER doctor and former lover Christine (Rachel McAdams) – but when all forms of expensive and experimental remedies fail, he is forced to swallow his pride and head to Nepal in pursuit of ‘alternative’ healing methods. 

Once there, he steps into the temple of the ‘Ancient One’ (Tilda Swinton) who – after proving to the skeptical Strange that astral projection is possible – promptly dumps his “arrogant ass” back on the street. But seeing his persistence, one of the Ancient One’s acolytes, Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) convinces her to give Strange a second chance. 

Though motivated by the selfish need to get his hands back on track so he can continue working, Strange soon ends up caught in the middle of an intra-sorceror war, as a rebellious former student Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his band of followers are keen to tear through the fabric of existence by tapping into the Dark Dimension of Dormammu – a parasitic force that’s something of a no-go zone for our wizards. 

Master and apprentice: Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor
Master and apprentice: Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor

It is actually a prologue of sorts that sets up the Kaecilius storyline, ensuring that the film hits the ground running with an action sequence that has the heretical group tearing out key pages from a spell book as the Ancient One tries – in vain – to stop them. With our mystical warriors carving weapons out of thin air and swirling their hands in balletic gestures to open up geo-hopping portals – all to the backdrop of Inception-like enfolding architecture – what the sequence also ensures is that our 3D glasses are, for once, not plastered onto our heads for naught. 

Which makes sense, since this is after all a film about esoteric magic – one that Marvel has wisely ensured doesn’t fall on the wrong side of their streamlined aesthetic. So Derrickson is allowed to go a bit crazy with the psychedelic trips across various celestial spheres, and while the CGI offers little by way of surprising design, the light mandalas that the mages conjure and the immersive backdrops of the netherworlds they plunge in and out of will lend something special to the experience.

It’s a touch of special that’s sorely needed, alas, as the story otherwise follows a fairly familiar rhythm. To wit: swap Stephen Strange over with Iron Man’s Tony Stark and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any material difference in their respective jerk-turns-heroic character arcs.

That being said, Doctor Strange nudges Marvel out of their aesthetic rut with a measured but nonetheless welcome degree of aplomb.