Mild Spoilers Below
Doctor Strange represents an important step forward for Marvel Studios. With a plethora of visual imagination and a distinct feel which separates it from its brethren in the Marvel Cinematic Universe- even though it still has several Marvel movie elements that arise- the film is honestly one of the favourite films from the MCU thus far. The story itself is very much the "Origin Story"- Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) goes through personal trauma, learns his powers, defeats the villain, and everything is firmly set up both for sequels and for Strange to appear in other MCU films. But while the story is generic, the film doesn't feel overtly stale. This comes from the aforementioned visual creativity as well as a compact running time and a dedicated lead performance from Cumberbatch and his fellow cast-members.
Stephen Strange is a renowned and brilliant neurosurgeon who after a car accident is unable to continue his practice due to his hands being damaged. Strange learns of a former paraplegic named Jonathon Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) who is now walking. Hoping that whatever healed Pangborn can give him hands back, he confronts Pangborn, who tells Strange of a place called Karmar-Taj. There Strange meets Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who takes him to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). She introduces Strange him to the world of magic, alternate worlds and astral planing. While at first reluctant to take in Strange as a pupil, she finally agrees. Strange eventually learns of the larger conflict at place between the Ancient One's former pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who has stolen pages from a book in the Karmar-Taj library and wants to summon the demon Dormammu and gain eternal life.
The film's director Scott Derrickson is someone whose work I've admired in the past. I think Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose are underrated gems of the horror genre and Derrickson's background in this genre and his talent for crafting unsettling imagery benefits the film when it enters psychedelic mode. When the Ancient One first sends Strange on a trip through the multiverse there's some creepy stuff that right's out a nightmare. What I like about the film is it acknowledges how scary magic and the mystic arts can be. Strange is warned that he plays around with time manipulation he can be stuck- Groundhog Day style- in the same moment forever or even wipe himself out of existence. Cinematographer Ben Davis provides a more atmospheric and darker look than we're used to in the MCU.
Cumberbatch isn't a stranger to playing hyper-intelligent and arrogant men who are very good at what they do- though Strange is more recognisably human than his version of Sherlock Holmes. The early parts of the film where we're introduced to Strange, witness his accident and it's aftermath feel refreshingly feel less like a superhero film than a drama. When Strange first sees his damaged hands it has genuine dramatic weight and we can understand his desperation at wanting to repair himself- though its underscored by his arrogance. He can't stand losing the fame and glory his talent and work brought him.
Rachel McAdams as Dr. Christine Palmer, Strange's colleague and former lover, is sadly underused but McAdams is such a naturally appealing and charismatic actress that she imbues Christine with some personality that's absent on the page. Michael Stuhlbarg, a fine actor, is also wasted as another fellow doctor, Nicodemus West.
Mikkelsen is one of the best when it comes to playing suavely sinister bad guys and he makes Kaecilus one of the better MCU villains. I like that his motivation isn't world domination but wanting to reunite with his deceased wife and son. There's not much of a hero-villain relationship between Kaecilius and Strange- instead Kaecilius has a more intriguing relationship with the Ancient One.
Ejiofor, an elegant yet forceful actor, is arguably playing the most important character next to Strange. I would've liked a few more moments just to make his decision at the end of the film a little more weighty. Benedict Wong is amusing as the humourless Wong. Most of the humour in the film comes from his interactions with Strange, which is where the typical Marvel humour seeps in. Once the humour starts it does clash with the more serious first act.
There's been much controversy surrounding Swinton's casting as the traditionally Tibetan Ancient One. Whitewashing is still a significant issue in Hollywood and needs to be rectified. With that being said, Swinton's performance is very good. She's such an offbeat and unique presence as an actress that she makes the Ancient One feel believably mystic. She also has the most emotional scene in the movie; it takes place between her and Strange and emphasises her humanity and how it exists alongside her incredible powers.
For those that felt Inception didn't do enough visually regarding its dream-scapes, Doctor Strange provides a plenty of eye-candy. I've become somewhat numb to blockbuster action but this is the rare film of its kind where the action is involving and exciting. Gravity is defied, geography is twisted and people fight on the astral plane; even the whole end of the world climax gets a fresh coat of paint and I love how the villain is defeated through wit rather than brawn.
While I like that the film is relatively short I still would've liked more of certain characters. I also feel it has the Man of Steel problem of putting most of the action in the back-half. Doctor Strange feels more in line with the Phase 1 films of the MCU where Marvel really felt like they were playing around with different genres within the same universe. The film is also very standalone- even though it name drops the Avengers, Infinity Stones and someone drops by in the mid-credits. It's good we can get more standalone adventures to balance out the more continuity heavy films like Civil War. Doctor Strange, while working as a self-contained story- also introduces plenty of cool ideas and concepts in to the larger MCU. And I am looking forward to seeing Strange interact with the other Marvel characters. As cynical as I can be about the superhero genre, having these characters exist and interact together is a wonderful thing. To paraphrase the poster for Doctor Strange: The possibilities are endless.