I liken the success of the Marvel movies to that of the original Star Wars film; bold, brilliant filmmaking that is inadvertently destroying the industry. Just as Star Wars set off a boom of sci-fi films following it’s release, many film studios have tried to capitalize on the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe formula. But Marvel’s fluid, deep universe is a hard act to replicate, and the key factor in it’s success is the emphasis on pushing its boundaries. Doctor Strange does this wonderfully, introducing a new chapter to the universe that feels congruent to the established tone, yet different in many ways.
Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an arrogant, brash surgeon with genius abilities, who suffers from a deathly accident that leaves his hands severely damaged. With his ability to perform surgeries seemingly gone forever, Strange travels in search of a mysterious practice that could cure him, meeting the mysterious being known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her apprentice Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofer). But when these mysterious figures are revealed to be sorcerers, Strange must learn the practices of magic to protect the world from the villainous Kaecillus (Mads Mikkelson), an ex-student of The Ancient One determined to plunge all reality into darkness.
Scott Derrikson pushed the boundaries of cinema as a director, with some of the most inventive and creatively staged visuals ever put to film. The mind blowing effects are in service of a different side of the universe than we’ve seen before, a stunning spectacle that explains its rules in plain form. The story is kept relatively formulaic and simple, but underneath is a great story about a man who learns the art of being humble, making for one of the more compelling character arcs of all the Marvel heroes.
In the lead role, Benedict Cumberbatch absolutely nails the charismatic and continuously hilarious nature of the character, giving us a hero to root for, but also one to learn from. Mads Mikkelson is serviceable as the villain, and while he’s underutilized, his character has much more development than most of the Marvel villains. However, the standout of the supporting cast is Chiwetel Ejiofer as Mordo, a conflicted character that gives Strange an excellent foil.
There’s a great deal of exposition dealt from Tilda Swinton, but the character serves as a great gateway to the universe, also serving as a solid foil for Cumberbatch. Benedict Wong and Rachel McAdams are very good, if again underutilized in their performances, but both are memorable and make the most of their limited presence. This is one of the funniest and most action packed Marvel films, giving laughs and revolutionary action at every corner, but it’s also one of the most heartfelt. In a growingly cynical blockbuster season, here is a film with themes of bettering oneself and letting go of arrogance, a universal lesson that’s given without any forced or cliched moments.
Doctor Strange is a complete blast, one of the best films in Marvel’s history and one of the best action movies of the year. While there are minor flaws, from some out of place humor to the lack of development left for some revelations, the film has an energy and style that’s distinctive. Marvel understands that the brand and next installments are irrelevant if we don’t have something to connect with initially, and Doctor Strange is further proof of their ability to create timeless characters. Grade: -A