Stephen Strange is one of the best neurosurgeons in the world, until a car accident sees his hands crushed. Strange tries everything to heal his injury and eventually, broke and desperate, he travels to Kathmandu. In a sanctum called Kamar-Taj he meets the Ancient One, a sorcerer who defends Earth from mystical and spiritual threats. Extremely reluctantly, she agrees to take on Strange as a student. He proves a quick servant, but his hunger for knowledge raises awkward memories of a previous student, Kaecilius, who turned to evil. When Kaecilius mounts a surprise attack, it is left to the inexperienced Strange to face him.
Doctor Strange is the fourteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and has one of the less-enviable tasks in the canon: it has to introduce the entire mystical, spiritual and magical side of the Marvel Comics universe to the movies, which have so far explained everything through hyper-advanced science. But by this point the MCU is absolutely over-brimming with confidence and Doctor Strange struts onto screen with almost as much swagger as the title character when he is introduced performing brain surgery to 1970s pop music (because that's just how rad he is).
In fact, Doctor Strange is a near-pitch-perfect popcorn movie. It knows it's not an Avengers, Civil War or even a Guardians of the Galaxy which is going to drag in massive crowds through bombast and slick team banter, and, like last year's similarly fun and chilled Ant-Man, it sets out to have a good time (although not quite as disposably, as this film has a lot more impact on the wider MCU). It establishes Strange - played with the requisite charisma and arrogance by Benedict Cumberbatch - as brilliant but consumed by hubris. It has fun casting him down to his lowest ebb, getting him to Nepal and into a series of training montages with Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor before he is ready to go fight villain Mads Mikkelsen in a mind-bending series of fights in alternate realities that out-Inception Inception about twenty times over.
For a movie dealing in the strange and mystical, the plot is surprisingly light and straightforward, the fight sequences are well-staged and the presentation of magic as a tangible force of nature is both different and well-done (and is actually slightly reminiscent of how it was handled in the WarCraft movie). At under two hours the film doesn't outstay its welcome and it handles its cliches with charm. The effects are also splendid: the Inception-aping scenes of New York folding in on itself are amazing, but there's also a brilliant homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey and the film's crown jewel, a fight sequence in a street where time is flowing backwards, with people un-dying and things un-exploding all around the characters. It's a brilliant, clever and original visual effect.
The film also holds back the best for the ending. If the Marvel movies have had a key weakness, it's been that they always get resolved in a morass of punching, explosions and CGI of varying quality. That's fine, but after thirteen previous movies that was starting to get a bit old. Doctor Strange wrong-foots the audience by presenting them with all the set-up for one hell of a massive battle, but then throws things for a loop and resolves the story in a completely different way. I wanted to stand up and applaud Marvel for finally having the courage to end one of their movies in a clever and cunning way that avoids lunatic ultraviolence and massive civilian casualties.
There are some drawbacks. There's perhaps a bit too much of Inception in the CG sequences, which start to get a little wearying towards the end of the film, and Mads Mikkelsen's villain is never really developed in an interesting manner (the perennial weakness of most of the Marvel movies to date), although Mikkelsen himself gives a typically charismatic performance.
But overall Doctor Strange (****) is a very solid slice of confident, popcorn entertainment, but which also has the confidence to try and do things a bit differently to the Marvel norm, and sets things up well for later movies in the series.
Note: this review originally appeared in 2016.
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