In a world, where Marvel continues to make very well executed, but cookie-cutter factory-approved movies, exists a rare example of something that is more of a risk than their prior creations: Doctor Strange. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton, along with an incredible supporting cast, the film takes us into a world of magic, “wizards”, and sassy one liners – the kind that Marvel needed more than they ever thought they did.
To start, the tale of Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is the tragic kind. A brilliant surgeon gets into a life damaging car accident, causing his hands to be almost non-functional. In a last ditch effort, he goes to Nepal to possibly be healed. But what he finds is beyond his own logic based imagination, and with the help of the Ancient One (Swinton), he begins to see “the bigger picture” of what lies in store for him.
Sure, none of this is outside of the deck of cards Marvel usually throws at its audiences, that eat every new film like the biggest collection of Halloween candy they can sink their nerdy teeth into. But when Strange enters his new world, thanks to the touch of Tilda’s finger upon his head, Doctor Strange slowly transforms into one of the better MCU stories – simply because it doesn’t care if you’re ready for the ride it’s about to take you on.
Now I’m not going to be the kind of person to ignore the repetitive nature of the MCU’s origin stories. “Self-obsessed hottie becomes superhero and gets served a huge amount of humble pie” is a tale we’ve come to expect from Marvel at this point, and Doctor Strange follows in those foot steps. But, unlike Tony and Cap’s stories, Strange takes a direction that stretches the imagery of most mainstream blockbusters, while also expanding the evolution of our hero.
Visually, if you thought Inception was going to “break your brain” in a cycle of images even your therapist was too scared to question you about, then you’ll need a good dose of preparation for what Doctor Strange will throw at you within its first act. The best way to describe the major scene (though there are several like it) in question would be to say the following: If you took the sequences from both the recent Spongebob theatrical adventure and the Richard Williams’ Raggedy Ann & Andy movie that made you question your own mind, along with some Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin album covers, you might just skim the surface of what some aspects of Doctor Strange look and feel like.
If that sounds at all like a ballsy move on the part of director Scott Derrickson, you’d be correct. And how Marvel – the studio that made beloved weirdo Edgar Wright so frustrated he had to leave Ant Man – approved any of this to come about, is beyond me. But maybe this is a hint that Marvel is finally taking the backseat, and letting their directors actually direct their movies without as many studio notes as Joss Whedon left us to believe.
That isn’t to say that Marvel isn’t throwing the typical, and even annoying, MCU tropes wherever humanly possible within Strange: we get mentions of Infinity Stones, a love interest that could be better, and a villain that is about as throw away as your 10 year old wash towel. But somehow, the team of Derrickson and the plethora of writers involved (including Prometheus writer, Jon Spaihts) have crafted a world that isn’t as reliant on the movies of MCU’s past, but rather looking more towards a smarter and more grounded future. No, none of them have a handle on this world like the Russo Brothers, but they are pretty darn close.
What also comes equally close to brilliance is the entire cast, who even though some roles are too small for the talent, each do their best to deliver interesting and electric performances. The obvious heavy hitters here are Cumberbatch and Swinton, who both have a lot of pressure on their shoulders. For Benedict, he has to win over the fandom, while Tilda has to battle the casting controversy surrounding her. Though neither of them would have been my first choice, they elevate much of the material. And as much as I would have loved accuracy in this specific Marvel movie, I can’t deny that watching Swinton own her action sequences made me sniffle with pride.
The rest of the ensemble – including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel Adams, Mads Mikkelsen and Benedict Wong, provide their own special dose of magic to their very tiny parts within this Marvel tale. Some benefit from this more than others, and unfortunately (in an attempt to dodge spoilers) a few characters could have used a bit more effort in the development of their roles (from mostly a script perspective) to make the end result pay off.
But looking from where things began, Doctor Strange is a beautiful example of the growth of Marvel of a studio. It is no way close to any sort of perfection, but the mature attempts at storytelling and mere mentions of other MCU priorities within, are a wonderful breath of fresh air that should be rewarded. And may it, much like this summer’s Civil War, be a sign of more interesting things to come for the sometimes bloated film franchise.