Doctor Strange shakes up the Marvel franchise with an extra dose of drama, writes Natalie Stendall.
Its heavyweight cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams and Mads Mikkelsen, who amp up the realism with involved performances, anchoring a trippy, delirious journey into another dimension.
Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a neurosurgeon too intelligent for his own good.
This arrogance puts him in conflict with colleagues and alienates his former-lover (Rachel McAdams). When a car crash brings him close to death, irreparably damaging his life-giving hands, Strange turns to The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) for spiritual guidance and mystic power.
Doctor Strange is as routine as origin stories get, establishing character and setting the franchise up for sequels - look out for a hilarious post credits sequence with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor.
Yet Doctor Strange brings with him a new dimension to the Marvel universe: protection not from physical threats, but mystical ones. As he learns to control powerful spiritual forces, Strange enters the astral plane - an out-of-body experience reveals a parallel worlds - and comes face to face with dark mystic, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).
These visuals are impressive and a welcome change to the destructive, high-rise city smashing typically favoured by Marvel.
It’s a shame then that we’ve seen many of the special effects before. The spinning rooms and buildings folding in on each other are Inception taken to extreme. This reminder of Christopher Nolan’s work doesn’t cast Doctor Strange in a favourable light. Instead, writer-director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil) gives us a poor imitation of Interstellar’s mind-bending ideas about space and time.
The film’s expositional clue dropping is clumsy and transparent, and there are gaping chasms in the plot.
As for Strange, Cumberbatch gives us a reined-in Sherlock with a sprinkling of Hugh Laurie’s House, arrogantly superior and emotionally distant. When he delivers a bunch of terrible gags, it feels like we’ve been dropped in a spoof of the Marvel-verse. This weird mix of haughty sarcasm won’t be for everyone, especially when combined with the film’s overarching dramatic tone.
Director Peyton Reed had more success flipping the superhero genre last year with the Edgar Wright scripted Ant-Man.
That gag-packed comedy crossover poked fun at Marvel’s formula. Perhaps inevitably, Scott Derrickson’s foray into realism gives us the impression of Marvel taking itself a little too seriously. By the time we reach the formulaic climax, the realism already feels dull.
By now we’ve seen the story of a surgeon losing his hands many times over - it’s been done everywhere from ER to Grey’s Anatomy - and even Cumberbatch can’t imbue the subject with any greater depth.
This odd concoction of dramatic realism and trippy, sci-fi fantasy won’t convert Marvel haters. For fans, it offers a fleeting visual feast, an experimental tone and the rare chance to see acting heavyweight Benedict Cumberbatch argue with a mystical cape.