(Originally posted 5th November 2016)
Doctor Strange certainly lives up to its name. It is a difficult film to pin down and it exists in an awkward mid point between fantasy and science fiction. This is in keeping with the nature of the titular character; a man of science who is pushed past his credulity by a magic world that he doesn't understand.
This is partly my immediate problem with the film. It can't just say that stuff is magic; you can't get away with that in this day and age, and certainly not in the Marvel universe that has been already set-up. They have gone to great pains to keep their characters in touch with the real world (just about). So the problem of all the magic has to be addressed in the framing of multi-dimensions and tapping into energy channels that were not previously known. And they do try to make it work. But it never really goes beyond the idea of, “Well, those Eastern spiritual religions – they're all kinds of whacky. Could explain anything.” That's a bit of a worn out idea by now, especially when your Eastern mystic is played by the whitest person in the world.
It deftly avoids tying itself to any religion, but fails to disassociate. This film is like people who say “I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual.” And it's equally fatuous.
Make no doubt about it, this film is about religion. But more than that, it's about the dispute of different factions within the same religion. There is no difference in the beliefs or practices of the characters, just the way they choose to utilise them. This is at first presented as a simple good vs. evil but that is refreshingly opened out to a little more ambiguity. This was the point where I actually started to believe there might be a bit more depth to be found here. This was backed up by the conclusion, where Strange uses the big bad guy's apparent strength against him, by introducing the concept of time to a dimension that has none. It's actually quite clever, and it's built up progressively throughout the plot so that it all makes sense – and it displays a bit of brain over brawn, which is not something we've had too much of recently.
It was this conclusion that really brought me back into the fold with Doctor Strange. Not that I was ever quite off the bus - it was a passable bit of entertainment - but this did give me hope that they might try and do something clever with this character in later incarnations. Clever by Hollywood standards, anyway. I mean, this is a film that thinks it's subtle to show a man eating an apple just before he starts taking on forbidden knowledge; it's not exactly high brow.
Generally speaking though, there were a lot of bits that just didn't quite work.
There are a few inexplicable moments, such as Strange travelling to Nepal and then being mugged by a white man with a western accent. This was so incongruous that I assumed it was going to lead on to something, such as the mugging was a fake set up to lead him somewhere or to test him... but no. Just weird casting.
The film tries to be funny throughout and fails at every attempt. It doesn't work within the tone as it does in say, Iron Man, and it all feels very forced and scripted. Benedict Cumberbatch is a fine actor but he does not have the force of personality of someone like Robert Downey Jr. In fact, Cumberbatch feels pretty awfully miscast all round, and really seems out of his element here.
The film does have a good go at fully explaining quite an unusual story world while still maintaining an engaging origin story, so the structure as a whole is well-balanced. But Rachel McAdams character gets a bit lost in the mix (no doubt she will re-appear in the following films) and Strange's previous life does fall by the wayside somewhat once he embraces the new persona. So this isn't going to be a secret identity job – he is now just a magic guy with a sentient cape. As with the general trend of the Marvel cinematic universe, this is becoming more and more removed from reality and the consequences on “real” people is not being explored. Maybe that's more like second wave material; once everyone's got over the idea that super-fights are cool, we can actually start getting some character driven plots.
So, overall, not a bad addition to the series, and one that survives more on potential than actual product. This felt like good writing that was struggling with a weak central character and premise, but they've done what they could with it. Visually, it was all very impressive and seamless, but also largely pointless and superficial. You could have a fight without making buildings go floppy, guys.
Not really to my tastes, but you'll get what you expect from a Marvel film; 6/10
You can hear our thoughts on an earlier installment of the Marvel universe in our Iron Man episode here: