By 2016 Marvel Studios had successfully cast it’s spell over the world like a megalomaniac hypnotist and was hitting greater heights than ever before. Their Phase three opener, Captain America: Civil War, had turned out to be a game changer, balancing a complicated plot and a dozen superheroes into an Avengers-level adventure that still felt intimate and character driven.
However, much like how Kevin Fiege and co. followed up the city smashing events of Age Of Ultron with the far smaller (in every sense of the word) Ant-Man, Civil War was similarly followed by an original story that opened up a whole new corner of the MCU, that of magic, multiverses and a Sorcerer Supreme by the name of Stephen Strange.
Ladies and gentlemen – the doctor is most certainly in….
Doctor Stephen Strange is an incredibly talented neurosurgeon who unsurprisingly also happens to be an insufferable asshole. Cherry picking cases to guarantee a perfect record and winding everyone up with his encyclopedic knowledge of virtually everything, Strange enjoys the finer things in life – or at least he did until a horrendous car accident leaves the bones in his hands looking like stepped on pretzels. His career essentially over (noone is letting him poke around the human body with hands that shake like a wino with the DT’s), Stephen sinks his fortune in a desperate attempt to find a cure, but when he stumbles on a formerly paralyzed man now confidently playing basketball with his mates, he follows the info to Nepal in search of a mysterious compound named Kamar-Taj. There he meets Mordo, a student of the Ancient One, who both explain to a sceptical Stephen that magic is, in fact, real and persuades him by having him take a rollercoaster of a literal magical mystery tour through numerous dimensions. Becoming a dedicated student in record time whose skills increase daily, Strange soon becomes aware of Kaecilius, a zealot who has turned from the Ancient One’s teachings and instead hangs around in the bad sife of the interdimentional street by aligning himself with an evil creature named Dormammu who desires the earth the way you desire chocolate on your cheat day.
Thrown into a war when all he wanted was non-shaky hands and his old life back, Strange teams with Mordo to stop Kaecilius’ assaults on the three mystic Sanctums that would give Dormammu dominion over this entire plane of reality but soon facts come to light about exactly how the Ancient One has managed to remain so ancient (hint: it’s not Oil Of Ulay and a regulated diet) which gives their enemies the edge. Can a reluctant Strange accept his destiny and harness the power of one of those elusive Infinity Stones in order to save all of reality? No pressure, then…
On first inspection, Doc Strange doesn’t really come anywhere near to the ground-breaking kind multi-franchise, long form storytelling Marvel is famous for thanks to it’s well worn origin formula. An egotistical, if gifted, prick gets into a humbling altercation with fate and rebuilds himself as a reluctant hero with newly acquired abilities and totally bitching facial fuzz – sound familiar? But where the basics tread somewhat uncomfortably close to Iron Man, Doctor Strange has a few tricks up it’s sleeves and I’m not talking a string of handkerchiefs or a ratty looking dove… no it’s the truly world class visuals cheekily pilfered from such films as The Matrix and Inception that elevate the well worn material into a vigorous must-see. Reality manipulation, astral projection, multiple realities and an evil Dark Dimension that’s lit like a stone’s black light look ripped right from the page of a Steve Ditko splash page are only the tip of the metaphysical iceberg. It’s all employed during the vastly entertaining, brain frying action scenes that threaten to be among the most inventive of the entire MCU – a hospital set fist fight between ghostly astral projections recalls Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners as the real world is subtly affected by the zero gravity brawl happening literally under people’s noses is to give one highly imaginative example. Another is a mind boggling foot chase through Manhattan is given a vomit inducing a M.C. Escher inspired makeover as Kaecilius literally scrambles reality into an obstacle course that make the staircase sequence in Labyrinth look like a half-deflated bouncy castle at a cut-price birthday bash.
Holding it all together is horror guy Scott Derickson, whose crisp direction of frighteners such as The Exorcism Of Emily Rose and Sinister Reed him up for this Marvel gig, and while Doctor Strange doesn’t really make full use of his horror-y talents, he has a clear eye for story telling that makes the excessive exposition a sweet pill to swallow. Helping immensely is the fact that Marvel have racked up a typically impressive cast as Benedict Cumberbatch deploys all the Sherlock based charm that make Strange such a likeable butt head and Tilda Swinton employs all that ethereal Tilda Swinton otherworldlyness to portray The Ancient One as another one of her fascinating weirdos. However, Rachel McAdams, Chitwetel Ejiofor usecall their skills to add depth to rather thinly sketch characters who obviously are there to get more to play with in subsequent appearances while Mads Mikkelson succumbs as the curse of the Marvel villain strikes again by making Kaecilius just another one-note (if charismatic) zealot in the vein of Guardians Of The Galaxy’s Ronan and Thor: The Dark World’s Maliketh.
However, in a weird twist, the rather sizable issue of Doctor Strange just feeling like Iron Man with added Hocus Pocus was retroactively made into a benefit as the meeting of Strange and Stark in Avengers: Infinity War meant that their similar personalities were a magnificent excuse for them to butt egos.
You can always tell when a Marvel movie lands the second you spot stuff you instantly crave more of and seeing as, at the time of writing, the sequel is due to start any day now (with SAM FUCKING RAIMI taking over directing duties no less) I desire – nay, DEMAND – more Wong, more weirdness and MUCH more of the good doctor’s sentient and rather affectionate Cloak Of Levitation in a coupling similar to Aladdin and his carpet POST HASTE.
So, yeah. While the origin story tropes kind of groan with the stress of familiarity, everything else about Marvel’s 14th movie shows that they still know how to keep everything feeling fresh.
Thanks for the trip Marvel, it was magic.