It is now a troubling time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After the events in Age of Ultron and Civil War, the Avengers are no more and what’s worse, new characters such as Ant-Man, Black Panther and Spider-Man 3.0 are effectively left in limbo until around 2017-18. Until then, Marvel brings out the second feature in the third phase – Doctor Strange, the latest origins story after Ant-Man last year.
Skilled neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) loses the use of his hands due to a tragic car accident, effectively ending his career. Desperately to be healed, he is guided towards an isolated community led by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). As his powers progress, the world becomes threatened by the traitorous Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).
First of all, it is hard to ignore the whitewashing scandal surrounding the casting of Swinton. In a move that was supposed to avoid stereotyping, her role as the Ancient One instead defies the original material and faced the wrath of critics and fans who felt that this was a missed opportunity to highlight diverse talent, especially as they have cast Benedict Wong (Wong) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mordo) in supporting roles.
On a side note, the casting of Cumberbatch is surprising. Most of the actors involved in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has seen them being catapulted into super-stardom due to them being a superhero, but this is the first one that has got a relatively high-profile actor in the lead role. Cumberbatch has appeared in Lord of the Rings, The Imitation Game and of course, Sherlock, so seeing him in such a relatively unknown role (in comparison to Iron Man, Thor and Captain America) is a different tactic for Marvel – where the actor is bigger than the character. Along with Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, this might indicate that the studio can now attract and secure high profile stars.
The third phase is also making a point of expanding the universe even further – more to the point, bringing in the cosmology side. Audiences have been teased the idea of magic in the MCU through Thor, but up until now, it had been all about the characters’ egos and weapons. Doctor Strange is probably the first real opportunity to delve into the cosmic side, with the help of mind-bending trickery.
However, Doctor Strange holds up pretty well as an origins film. A struggling hero confronted with leaving his old life behind and the idea of dismissing all he knows makes a compelling plot – throw in a wise teacher, power-hungry villain and skilled sidekick and you have your film. While the story may sound simple, Doctor Strange is compensated with impressive visuals and strong character development. Director Scott Derrickson creates cool set pieces and focuses on the evolution of Strange, leaving cinematographer Ben Davis to capture the eye-catching visuals.
The casting in Doctor Strange is also great. Already known as an arrogant know-it-all in Sherlock, Cumberbatch pulls off being an arrogant know-it-all with a murmuring American accent. As his skills develop, he becomes more humble while retaining his snarky sense of humour. Ejiofor and Swinton represent the calming voices of reason, with the latter delivering a quietly determined performance whose emotionless mask is strangely calming. The mostly-silent, one-dimensional Mikkelsen can add ‘action star’ to his already impressive resume, while the underused Wong and McAdams deliver the light banter and comedic relief – the former to amusingly deadpan effect.
Dialogue-wise, the quick-witted script by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill builds on the idea of something more past our current universe, which is in a way what the MCU is about. By delving into the cosmology side, the film is reinforcing what we already know from Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy – there is more out there to come.
Visually confusing and occasionally quirky, Doctor Strange is a welcome break from the troubles of the Avengers, and proves Marvel can still deliver an origins story.
Doctor Strange is out in UK cinemas on 25 October.
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