Chances are, if you’re reading this review on Giz UK, Doctor Strange doesn’t need too much introduction: It’s the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous hero, and is the first film in the series to introduce magic into the canon. That’s right -- magic. If you’re looking for some pseudo-scientific dialogue to explain all of the weird stuff on screen, you’re going to walk away disappointed.
But despite this potentially avant-garde twist, the film never strays too far from the Marvel comfort zone. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is up to you.
Without giving too much away, the film tells the story of Doctor Stephen Strange, a brilliant surgeon whose hands are damaged in a car accident. Looking for a fix, he travels to Nepal and joins an ancient organisation -- and of course ends up getting embroiled in an inter-dimensional war. As you do. In fact, given the sheer amount of backstory and lore that the film needs to set up, it positively canters through to this point, so that the ‘real’ action can begin.
What's particularly heartening is that the film wisely doesn’t get too pompous with its usage of eastern mysticism. Each line of meaningless drivel about how death gives life meaning or whatever is punctured with a gag -- as perhaps best exemplified by a section from the trailer in which Strange is offered a card with the word “Shambala” written on it. “What’s this, my mantra?”, he asks. “No, the Wi-Fi password,” Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) responds.
This said, as someone who is a staunch rationalist, who believes in empiricism and the scientific method, it does worry me that the film could end up accidentally lending credibility to peddlers of bullshit. Pseudo-scientific explanations of super soldiers or X-genes I can take. But acupuncture? It’s a tougher ask.
The good news, story-wise though, is that despite being a work of high fantasy it doesn’t suffer from the same issues as many other fantasy stories, where new and mysterious powers solve old problems. Broadly speaking, it sets up the rules of Strange’s universe, and leads them to a (mostly) satisfying conclusion, both narratively and thematically.
The only downside is that annoyingly, as with previous Marvel films, the villain isn’t particularly well-developed. Given the weird and fantastical nature of the plot, grounding Mads Mikkelsen’s villainy in anything that feels real is always going to be tricky -- but it’s almost like we’re expected to accept that the Dark Dimension is bad simply because it has a scary-sounding name.
As has been widely commented on, the visual effects in the film are rather spectacular. Think Inception meets a kaleidoscope meets what I presume an acid trip is like. It gives the film a unique look, and an early sequence in which a battle takes place in London as it folds in on itself nicely sets up the look of the film. I’m slightly less convinced by the need to make the film in 3D. Though there a moments when it works well, such as during a spectacular first encounter between Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One and Cumberbatch’s Strange, at other times it looks as though cardboard cut-outs are being held in front of the scene.
Essentially then, if you like Thor, Captain America and Guardians of the Galaxy you’re going to like this -- but then you already knew that, didn’t you? Ultimately, Doctor Strange’s place inside the Marvel Cinematic Universe is both a straitjacket and something wonderful.
It’s a straitjacket because you can see how the film has to slightly wrestle to make sure it doesn’t screw up the wider Marvel project, narratively. Whether it was mined from Strange lore or is a new invention I’m not sure, but the use of the “Mirror Dimension” in which crazy shit can take place means that New York can fold over itself and characters can run along the sides of buildings in epic VFX sequences without the viewer having to worry that Jessica Jones and Luke Cage might be caught up in the fracas over in Hell’s Kitchen. “It doesn’t affect the real world but you can still die,” Mordo repeatedly reminds Doctor Strange, to let the audience know the stakes and how it all fits together.
Mercifully though, there isn’t any awkward sequence like the one in Ant Man where our hero has to go to Avengers HQ for no real reason, or the bit in Civil War where Spider-Man has to be brought in only to disappear again minutes later.
But Strange’s place in the wider MCU is obviously exciting too. Viewed in its wider context, this first film is clearly just a taste of what we can expect from Cumberbatch’s mystical hero. This film is about explaining what he can do -- so now we can look forward to the benevolent Disney corporation dropping him into the toy box to interact with the dozens of other characters we now know so well. Just how will a man who can create portals to other dimensions get on with a man who is quite good at archery? I guess we’ll find out in a couple of years.
Awkward Product Placement Watch: It turns out that Stephen Strange uses a Microsoft Surface and an Honor (Huawei) phone. Luckily there was nothing quite as egregious as Tony Stark firing up Bing in Iron Man 3, or Black Widow using Skype on her Samsung Galaxy S6. Strange’s watch was also clearly a paid placement -- but I’m not enough of a regular at the yacht club to be able to identify what it was.