At the time we meet them, the characters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are all connected by a thread of similarities: they are all battling their own inner demons, facing problems with their personal relationships, played by the best talent that Hollywood can muster and communicate solely through jokes and openers to exposition. After the premise, however, the filmmakers are allowed to experiment and be creative with their stories – as long as the essential ingredients of an infinity stone, references to other Marvel films, and villains exasperated enough with our reality to open portals for other worlds to take over, are not missed out in the process. Doctor Strange is the nth film in the franchise (Where n is twice the number of years since Iron Man came out. Well, almost.) for which an end looks nowhere near, which tells the story of a doctor who learns to forget everything he knows, as he embarks on a journey of endless metaphysical possibilities. Armed with an extremely intriguing premise, an exceptional cast and amazing visuals, this is a film that hits all the notes required of the franchise in its race to that last portal battle, while also trying some new things along the way.
Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a renowned neurosurgeon with a penchant for arrogance and an inflated ego that does not allow him to accept failure in any endeavour. After having the use of his hands lost in a car accident, he seeks out and attempts every untested procedure he can find to cure himself of his affliction, ending in vain every time. When a former paraplegic tells him of a place in the mountains – Kamar-Taj – that was able to help him with his medically untreatable condition, Strange seeks out the place and is taken in by another disciple, Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). It is here that he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her school of training in the mystical arts, and his mind and body are unlocked to a new world of alternate dimensions, chakras and spells that goes against most of his beliefs till that point. Learning exceptionally fast and yet unsure of the role he is to assume, he is unexpectedly faced with the threat of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of the Ancient One who has pulled a Darth Vader and turned over to the Dark Dimension.
As a character, Doctor Strange is arrogant to the point of being afraid of failure, as it stands as evidence for the limitations of his capabilities. This arrogance is what drives him to desperation as he seeks a cure for his hands, and it is this massive reliance on his own intellect which makes it difficult for him to forget what he knows and open himself to the world beyond what is right in front of him. Curiosity leads his instinct, and it is exactly that which the Ancient One taps into – through a most effective dimension jumping sequence where Strange is thrown up and bounced about different worlds and planes. It is this aspect of his character, which factors greatly into his actions, often reckless and with no more endgame than learning more, that makes for an interesting perspective to follow this strange story through. However, the very same attitude of mental superiority is also what leads him to respond almost constantly in snarky deadpan tones that get old and irritating really fast. It is surprising that in a film meant to explore the stranger side to the Marvel universe, the most interesting element is the character of Strange himself, a statement completely to the credit of Benedict Cumberbatch, who completely embraces the role and noticeably has fun with it.
Perhaps the biggest drawback of the film is its impatience: there is way too much information crammed into the screenplay that the film flows like a series of explanatory monologues set in different locations, narrated in a manner familiar to some science channels. Owing to the unfamiliar territories and equally unfamiliar characters, the presence of exposition would indeed be understandable; however, there are too many moments in this film where you are not given the time to process something before conversation moves on to the next vital piece of information. Pausing hardly to take a breath and appreciate the visual extravaganza all around its scenes, Doctor Strange suffers from wearing out its audience from the very first act, bloated as it is with conversations that add little to the story of the characters, more fixated on setting up a new frontier for the franchise to explore. It is unfortunate that, when the visual effects team has worked so hard to create dazzling kaleidoscopic dimensions and other worlds, the film spends does not them allow them the time to do anything more than make the audience go ‘That’s some trippy stuff!’
Otherwise known mostly for his extensive work on horror films such as Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Scott Derrickson here seems weighed down by the burden of fitting his film into the existing universe, and thereby subscribing to its tone and rules. At the end of the day, however, he shows himself creative enough with the little room he is allowed, in order to turn up a few pleasant surprises, using the details of the mystical world opened by this character and incorporating them efficiently, and sometimes, unexpectedly, into the plot. The film showcases the mind-boggling reaches of space and time, as we journey through its infinite worlds whizzing past, bogged down by the script which gives little meaning to them. Making it all work to an extent, and driving the compelling story of its characters, is the expressive performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, engaged in a well-matched competition of charisma with Mads Mikkelson. It is enough to make you feel disappointed by the monotones in the characters of the Ancient One and Mordo, who had the potential to be far more engaging in light of the actors portraying them. In the end, Doctor Strange lives up to its claim of being one of the strangest films in the franchise, which in light of the MCU’s recurring trends, isn’t saying all that much.