Launching a new sub-franchise, Benedict Cumberbatch does the heavy lifting in a film that showcases the best and worst of Marvel
Marvel Studios doesn’t make bad movies. Admittedly, the comic-book adaptations they spit out at a rate of two a year aren’t always good movies, but with the exception of 2008’s hastily forgotten The Incredible Hulk, audiences have gotten exactly what they paid for. And boy have they paid, with billions of dollars and millions of seats filled across phases one and two of the MCU. Look, this isn’t Fellini, but when it comes to bons mots, buff bods, pop-culture nods, forgettable villains, and splashy CGI, at least Marvel has, so far, shown a far greater sense of self-awareness for this kind of thing than its big-hitting rivals over at DC and Warner Bros. And Dr Strange is another fine example of Marvel’s commitment to perfectly good enough.
Created by Marvel’s Steve Ditko in 1963, Stephen Strange is a New York-based brain surgeon who models his entire aesthetic on looking a bit like Tony Stark and affecting that trademarked Tony snark. Played with earnestness, boastfulness and just the right amount of silliness by Benedict Cumberbatch, 2016’s film version gives us a Dr Strange who is a surgical savant, his skills on the operating table akin to medical superheroics. Showcasing an encyclopaedic knowledge of 70s funk music while helping his will-they/won’t-they colleague Rachel McAdams (criminally underused), Strange is the kind of cool operator who everyone seems to love despite his being almost entirely unlikeable.
But when a car accident destroys the surgeon’s hands, leaving him with more metal bound to his fingers than Wolverine, Strange tries everything he can to regain the skills taken from him – including a last ditch attempt at finding enlightenment in Nepal. By this point, the once millionaire doctor is down to his last penny and has the kind of mild movie depression best exemplified by a refusal to wash his hair. Perhaps fittingly, he meets and find redemption in the bald Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), problematically cast in a role that has always been an Asian character, but also doubling the number of spoken female parts in the entire thing – Dr Strange’s mangled right hand giveth, his trembling left one taketh away.
There really is no getting around this, but eight years and now 14 feature films into the Marvel project, and the company still doesn’t understand that 50% of the population are women. It isn’t just the lack of female characters at the front and centre, but how few there even are on the edges. For example, in Dr Strange, take Benjamin Bratt’s Jonathan Pangborn, a minor role played by, Miss Congeniality superfans notwithstanding, a minor actor. Having this character be male adds nothing to the story, so why write him as one? Yes, there are a few henchwomen thrown into the mix, silently stomping around, maybe one or two hospital patients. But my patience is wearing thin here, and in a universe where Benedict Cumberbatch is able to wave his hands, utter some words and make the literal impossible possible, why does Marvel blindly insist on making the very possible seem inconceivable?
Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch in Dr Strange [Marvel Studios]
In Nepal, Strange begins to learn the way of multiverse magic, including some mind-bending .gif files, some sleight-of-hand Spirograph sorcery, some Inception-style building Jenga, and a handful of plot-propelling magical accoutrements, the most fun of which is his coercive cloak – like Aladdin’s magic carpet, but more murderous. Swinton, shorn of all of her hair but wearing the kind of vestments you’d kind of expect to see her running around Tesco in, carries herself ably through a role that is basically soothsaying mystic, looking as comfortable beating up baddies as she does slicing through Strange’s self-aggrandising personality.
Enter stage left: the baddie. Mads Mikkelsen, wearing the kind of heavy eye make-up best suited to a challenge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, wants to summon a deity from a demon dimension, because reasons, and it’s up to Dr Strange and his new magical mates to fend him off. To do so, the action jumps back and forth between Nepal, New York and Hong Kong, ending with a denouement so meta that it works as perhaps the most damning critique of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it, and keep on churning.
But that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of fun to be had in the meantime.
Dr Strange (12A/115min) is released nationwide tomorrow.
Verdict: ★★★☆☆ As an origins story carrying the weight of an expanded universe, Dr Strange sticks to the winning formula, filling its running time with fast-paced action, gorgeous visuals, and few women