DOCTOR STRANGE: A Gentler, Smarter Superhero

It must come as no surprise that I, along with most other people, love Benedict Cumberbatch. From his pre-Sherlock work on Stuart: A Life Backwards and Third Star (which is absolutely amazing, by the way) to Sherlock itself and his more recent work on Parade’s End (a particular favourite) and Star Trek Into Darkness, I’ve found ‘The Batch’ to be not only a wonderful actor but infinitely watchable. The very idea of his being in a Marvel film with Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Rachel McAdams was an incredibly inviting prospect.

I really like a Marvel film but, to be honest, I think I’m getting a bit sick of the inevitable long drawn out fight sequences and the extraneous visual effects. So the idea of a more intellectual, spiritual approach to the superhero sounded great to me. An arrogant neurosurgeon who has to learn to be a better man and help the world, what’s not to love about that? And while I won’t say that Doctor Strange knocked me out with its brilliance, there are so many parts to like that I couldn’t help but become quite attached to it.

‘The Batch’

There are Marvel and DC films being produced en masse these days and we have our pick of which superhero to follow, and follow them we do across television shows and even into other movies. There is no doubt in my mind that this isn’t just to do with an attachment to the heroes or to the quality of the productions, but more than anything because of a fascination with the actors who play these parts. They are charismatic and even if you’re not attracted to them they are fascinating to watch. So it should come as no surprise that when casting Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange Marvel raised the bar to phenomenal heights.

DOCTOR STRANGE: A Gentler, Smarter Superhero
source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Already an icon of modern television Cumberbatch brings with him swathes of fans, but also a certain reputation as an actor. While he’s not yet a legend of the British screen he has all the hallmarks of being one some day. His striking looks, his very English manner, and his acting acuity brings with it a certain respect. He is quite perfect for the role of Strange, this intellectual, dignified superhero.

Though it’s still something of a shock to see Cumberbatch all made up as a superhero, he pulls it off. And while I’ll always have a few bones to pick with the accuracy of his American accent and the dodgy beards he has to go through in this film I still find him spellbinding.

Sterling Support

I think Marvel knew that if you cast Benedict Cumberbatch you don’t cast just anyone else to support him, you have to order in some quality talent. Mads Mikkelsen as villain Kaecilius is well cast, although I feel he’s kind of underused. But there’s only so much time in a film, with that in mind he’s probably in it the right amount. Chiwetel Ejiofor is on point as friend Mordo, but I think it’s probably Rachel McAdams who really shines, as Strange’s friend and former lover, Dr. Christine Palmer.

Christine has been written very well. She is strong, competent, McAdams even gets to show off her rather excellent comic timing. Benedict Wong is also a nice addition as librarian Wong (yes, Benedict Wong is in a film with Benedict Cumberbatch, playing a character called Wong). Wong as an actor is always ‘that guy out of that thing’ which is a shame as he really has a strong presence and a great sense of comic timing. We get to see a little of that here, hopefully one day he’ll get a bigger role to show it off in.

DOCTOR STRANGE: A Gentler, Smarter Superhero
source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The only problematic piece of casting in Doctor Strange (and you already know what I’m going to say) is Tilda Swinton as ‘The Ancient One’. Originally a Tibetan man in the comic books the film has been criticised for white-washing. The filmmakers’ arguments relate to how the original comic book incarnation was very stereotypical (i.e. offensive), and how they liked the idea of including another woman in the Marvel universe, a Celtic woman.

However, to me the decision smacks of political reasons. China plays a huge part in the box office earnings of these sort of action movies. You cast a Tibetan person you upset China, you cast another Asian person you upset Tibet. I can understand why the filmmakers might want to avoid the issue entirely and I think Swinton does a sterling job (I really can’t imagine anyone doing better), but they really must try harder in future. While it’s good to challenge the old comic book ideals of sex, sexuality and race the Tibetan people really need their place, and their voice, on the cinema screen too.

No School Like The Old School

I’ll level with you, Doctor Strange didn’t knock me out of the park. It doesn’t have the usual highs and lows of a Marvel action movie but what it does have is a lot to like. While it’s the most recent Marvel film it actually has more in common with the original sci-fi comic books and movies of the 60’s era. Cumberbatch has a striking look about him, over the top but pleasingly familiar, reminiscent of Vincent Price, with his angular face, hair and beard. The design of the film also feels like something from the 60’s, reminding you of early Batman designs. It’s a great clash of obvious modern Western spaces along with older, more timeless ideas.

The visual effects, for all their sensational drama, actually feel less invasive than in other Marvel films. Which is odd because they run pretty much throughout, however, the film doesn’t lean on them for entertainment value. Again, like the production design, the effects feel based on older and more creative ideas, and add personality to the feel of the film.

There are parallel dimensions, all very different and unique. Journeys into space, movement of time, astral projection; it all combines to make something kind of trippy. It’s like a 60’s sci-fi movie was put in a blender with Inception and The Frighteners, you’re not sure where to look, but it’s fun and I imagine if you saw it in 3D it would be a hell of a thrill ride.

DOCTOR STRANGE: A Gentler, Smarter Superhero
source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

As previously mentioned the cast is awesome, the design is great, but I take issue with the writing and directing. Which is okay in itself, but never really as great as the film’s actors. This is evident in the fact that the film simply feels like a great set-up for something, something we never quite get to it. This is Marvel, I know, there will be sequels, but that shouldn’t be used as an excuse for what is a surprisingly intelligent but really quite underwhelming ending.

That being said I never ever became disinterested in this film, I was properly intrigued even when I wasn’t sure why. It also has a good sense of humour, and while some jokes could have been better directed I still laughed at most of them.

Conclusion

Weirdly, Doctor Strange is a great film. I say ‘weirdly’ because I can’t remember anything in particular that I would regard as amazing. What I can say is that I liked it a lot, and what I know about films I like a lot is that they always grow on me. The casting, the acting, the design, was fantastic. Also, the rather brilliant writing of Dr. Christine Palmer and her relationship with Strange was much appreciated; apparently a smart, respected woman who is also a love interest is within Hollywood’s reach.

All in all Doctor Strange is fun, but I still feel it could be better. All the quality is there, and I hope that Marvel pulls a hell of a sequel out of the bag. Because Strange is such a great character. He isn’t just any old superhero, he’s not gaudy and violent, he’s smarter, he’s gentler. He’s basically a much nicer Sherlock… in a cape. And who can argue with that?

Have you seen Doctor Strange? How do you feel he compares to other Marvel superheroes?

Doctor Strange is now out across the UK and US, for the release dates in your country see here.

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