Since the very first trailer, Doctor Strange has been made out to be a very serious matter; life-altering car wrecks, rehabilitation and powerful sorcery are all very serious matters, after all. There’s no room for jiggery-pokery and one-liners when there are things to overcome. The reality of the film is actually very different.
After the opening scene involving The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and the evil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) battling vertically, horizontally and diagonally on the sides of the buildings on the streets of London, we get our first look at Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Cue ‘Shining Star’ by Earth, Wind & Fire, and Strange bobbing along during brain surgery, trying to guess the title, artist and year of each track technician Billy skips to in order to test his Strange’s mad music recognition skills. Serious, brooding Stephen Strange from the trailers is actually a doctor version of Tony Stark with a cape instead of a metal supersuit and slightly less facial hair.
That might be down to the fact that the ever brilliant Dan Harmon was called in to doctor the film’s script and add a couple of jokes. His efforts definitely paid off; it’s not as jam-packed as Guardians Of The Galaxy or Ant-Man, which both rely heavily on their strong but relentless senses of humour, but the gags rarely miss and, best of all, they’re not lame or misplaced. Obviously there’s at least one joke confusing ‘strange’ as an adjective and ‘Strange’ as Strange’s name – because why not – but for the most part the jokes are just funny, and add some levity to dire situations.
In terms of placing Doctor Strange into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s not the studio’s best execution. However, it’s a pretty great origin story and standalone film, and it’s a textbook blockbuster superhero movie. It’s big, loud and impressive, with an epic soundtrack and a solid cast.
But particular props have to go to film’s visual effects department, who have completely blown the film out of the water as far as the sorcery is concerned. Marvel is consistently great at bringing that universe to life through the likes of VFX battles, Iron Man’s suit and Asgard, but it’s taken to a new, fantastic level in Doctor Strange. The opening scene’s battle gives us a look at what sorcery is to come, but as impressive as that scene is, the effects really don’t show themselves off until Strange first visits the Astral Plane. They’re not only extremely creative; they’re completely mesmerising.
It’s easy to keep going on about a film’s incredible visual effects when there’s not much else to comment on, but the case isn’t the same for Doctor Strange. It has a strong story, good characters and an engaging script to get excited about. But ultimately, none of those things compare to the sorcery on display. It’s basically art. Two hours of Strange being confused at the ins and outs of the Astral Plane would have been just as satisfying as the actual film. This is the new VFX bar to reach.
Like all Marvel projects, Doctor Strange does have a couple of problems; Strange’s colleague and love interest Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) is a bit of a nothing-character, not really there for anything besides extremely basic emotional support, and though he’s a good fit for the doctor, Cumberbatch’s American accent is patchy. But whatever. There’s time to work on these things in Doctor Strange 2, 3 and probably 4.