Doctor Strange: A (mostly spoiler-free) Review

Tonight, my housemate Gareth and I went to see the latest Marvel movie, Doctor Strange. I was mildly anxious about it, given the whole whitewashing thing they pulled with Tilda Swinton, but at least the director has since owned up to it, which I respect, condemnation aside. It’s handwaved in the film by their claim she’s of Celtic descent, rather than an outright Asian woman, but as a white person, it’s really not up to me to say if that’s an acceptable excuse or anything like that, and I hope the high-profile racebending is addressed and fixed satisfactorily in the inevitable sequel.

That said, I did find Swinton’s performance to be the strongest in the film, bringing resilience, serenity and maturity to the role of the Ancient One that is both soothing and authoritative simultaneously. She plays an excellent mentor with considerable depth and the implications surrounding her character and her decisions are fascinating to watch. It’s the kind of role I would love to see more of Swinton in in future performances.

Unfortunately, the person she interacts most with is Benedict Cumberbatch’s titular Stephen Strange, who may be the most punchable “man of science” fictional character since the entire cast of The Big Bang Theory. There is nothing redeeming or likeable about the selfish, arrogant, prat of a man whose actions utterly fail to reflect what we are routinely told about him. It’s claimed that Stephen got in to medicine to help people, but he frequently contradicts this in the early scenes, turning down cases that aren’t “interesting” or could damage his “perfect record” in surgery. It is impossible to develop any sense of sympathy for him, even when he receives debilitating nerve damage from a car accident (that is entirely his own fault – so much so that the film includes a disclaimer about dangerous driving in its credits) that kills his career as a neurosurgeon stone-dead, his lashing out, particularly towards Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer, renders him utterly contemptible. It never gets better, Stephen is supremely arrogant and lacks foresight or care about consequences and really doesn’t grow as a character, other than accepting the whole magic and mysticism thing.

Strange has been compared to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, but I would disagree – he is much less endearing, and it is not at all helped by Cumberbatch’s performance. He utterly fails to hold a convincing American accent, he frequently mumbles lines and oh, lord, the action scenes are not his strong suit. Neither is the nerve damage in Strange’s hands, which is incredibly inconsistent throughout the film. Sometimes it takes him great pain and effort to open his hands, other times he’s casting spells without a care. It really sucks you out of the film, which is a shame, because Strange‘s strongest asset is its world-building and atmosphere. The visual effects are utterly breathtaking (though if I were Christopher Nolan, I’d probably be calling my lawyer) and the opening scene in which The Ancient One fends off the (incredibly forgettable, but it’s a Marvel movie, so what else is new) villain Kaecilius and his thugs on the side of a building, sets the tone for unequivocably the best-looking Marvel movie so far, though the action choreography frequently clashes with the visuals, which is a shame. Strange’s cosmic trip as he learns about the world beyond what he can see is also a genuine treat and reminds me very much of Kubrick’s iconic visuals from 2001: A Space Odyssey. That said, the extra-dimensional entity reminds me just way too much of Andross from the original Starfox, and just looks silly.

The final thing I must praise from Doctor Strange is its superbly entertaining supporting cast. I already mentioned Tilda Swinton of course, but Benedict Wong as… Wong (coincidental according to the comic lore), the librarian puts on a delightfully deadpan performance; stonewalling Strange at every turn while still teaching him plenty about the world of magic. Plus you’ve got Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, Strange’s fellow student who serves as a strong foil, and he’s pretty great in everything. Rachel McAdams, sadly (especially as she’s the only other prominent female character), is criminally underutilised and it feels like several scenes of her interacting with Strange ended up on the cutting room floor, probably because Cumberbatch is in his worst performance since Hamlet. It leaves the resolution to their characters arcs feeling very out of left-field and unsatisfying.

Apart from those points, this is very standard Marvel fare. A script with a lot of great jokes (any scene that humiliates or brings Stephen down to earth is a great example), a villain who makes no impact whatsoever, some cosmic lore that enhances the whole cinematic universe and a couple of stingers, with the promise that “Doctor Strange will return!”

Does he have to though? Does he really, really have to? Yes? Damn. Cumberbatch needs to up his game bigtime for his next appearances. It’s confirmed that he’ll be playing a role in Thor 3: Ragnarok, as well as Avengers: Infinity War and at the moment, I can see him being a very weak link in the lineup. Doctor Strange is honestly worth seeing for its cinematography, gorgeous visuals and soundtrack, along with some strong turns, if you can look past the most overrated actor in modern Britain being garbage, and the whitewashing. Still good, just certainly no Iron Man or Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

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