What it's about:
When Stephen Strange, an arrogant but brilliant neurosurgeon, has his life and career brought to a screeching halt after having his hands mangled in a bad car accident, his search for a cure brings him to the doorstep of the Ancient One, an ageless sorceress who may be the one person able to do what the most advanced medicine could not. What starts off as a desperate last resort for a man who has always lived his life with no time for anything beyond a materialistic (in both senses of the word) view of the world is soon confronted with both a reality that challenges everything he knows to be true and something that may well give him a purpose far, far greater and far more selfless than just healing his hand.
What we thought:
Created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee in 1963, Dr Strange wasn't just the duo's biggest creation outside of Spider-man (most of Lee's other well known creations were co-created with Jack “the King” Kirby) but one that was oddly prescient of the counter culture that would grip the Western world for a few short years in the mid-late-sixties. Right from the off, Dr Strange was something different to come from Marvel at the time; a character and a comic book that fully embraced (mostly) Eastern mysticism, magic and druggy psychedelia to stand in stark contrast to the relatively straight-laced science fiction concepts of early Silver Age superhero comics.
It might seem like damning with faint praise, then, that the only thing that really stands out about the Dr Strange movie from Marvel Studios' seemingly endless parade of hit superhero blockbusters is its trippy visuals but that would be to misunderstand both the wining formula at the heart of Marvel Studio's critical and commercial successes and just how much Dr Strange's visuals really do make it something special.
In many ways, you see, the great thing about Dr Strange is that it is just another Marvel movie. The details might be different but Stephen Strange's heroic journey from arrogant, pompous ass to selfless hero is almost note-for-note identical to those of Iron Man and Thor and the basic plot, witty dialogue and damn near perfect casting are by now staples of all of Marvel's self-produced films. Despite the interesting choice in director (Sinister's Scott Derickson) and the fact that they needed to bring in Dan Harmon (Community, Rick and Morty) to apparently punch up the humour in the script, you can be pretty sure you're in safe hands once again.
And yet, for all that the Marvel stamp of quality and the spectacular cast (Benedict Cumberbatch is particularly perfect as our eponymous hero but the likes of Ejiofor, McAdams, Mikkelson and Swinton, all on top form, don't exactly hurt things either) all but guarantee a quality production, it really is the film's visual daring that really makes Dr Strange more than just another superhero origin movie.
The film's breathtaking special effects sequences and gorgeous cinematography (from superhero movie veteran Ben Davis) aren't simply a feast for the eyes – but man, oh man, are they very much that – but they give the film a freshness that is pretty incredible considering just how familiar the film's plot and structure are.
For a start, even without the expository dialogue, mostly brilliantly delivered by the always brilliant Tilda Swinton, the film's multi-dimensional, layered and surreal (but still very accessible and mainstream) visuals alone suggest the mysticism and psychedelia - not to mention the drugginess that brings it all together - inherent in the character at his best. There's a level of pop-spirituality and pop-philosophy in both the visuals and, by extension, the film itself that brings the Marvel Cinematic Universe closer to something like the Matrix – though, for my money, with a panache and sense of humour that even the Matrix at its best only wished it had.
On a more visceral level, we've all become so used to the action scenes in superhero movies that the epic final battle at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron - that just a decade ago would easily be seen as one of the most spectacular ever committed to film - was instead largely received as something tiresome and overly familiar, so it really says something that the action scenes in Dr Strange are as innovative as they are exciting as they are gleefully demented. I wouldn't want to spoil a single one of them but they're almost enough to recommend the film on their merits alone – and that's not something I've said about an action set piece in a very, very, very long time.
Admittedly, the film doesn't quite reach even higher levels as it is just a bit too familiar at times and just a bit too... inconsequential for its own good (a criticism that could probably be leveled at all of Marvel's films but is slightly more pronounced here for obvious reasons) but Dr Strange is still easily one of the better genre films of the year and a surprisingly major (yet mostly standalone) entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It also, not for nothing, probably has the best score in a Marvel film to date as the great Michael Giacchino makes his very noticeable Marvel Studios debut.
And, it has to be said: though I saw it in 3D, I fully intend to see it again in IMAX – I can't imagine a film this year better suited to that format. Whatever you do, though, do not wait for this to hit the home video market as it really is best appreciated in a top-notch cinema, with the biggest screen and the best sound available. Anything else and you're just doing yourself and the film a great disservice.