Doctor Strange (3D) (2016) (Review)

After Marvel delivered their best film to date - in my eyes, anyway - with Captain America: Civil War earlier this year, all eyes now turn to their second offering of the year, Doctor Strange, the latest origin story that seeks to discover a wave of new Avengers to take the mantle at the end of freshly-beginning Phase Three. As noted earlier this year ('2016: The Year The Superheroes Fell?'), the superhero genre is going through a rather divisive year in terms of quality, expectations and reception to say the very least; how will the last big superhero film of the year stand in the power ranking, and will it see Marvel put another nail in DC's coffin? Let's see...

After a car accident claims the use of his hands, Neurosurgeon Stephen Strange's (Benedict Cumberbatch) frustration causes him to push away those who care for him, including love interest Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). With experimental surgeries failing, his last resort is Kamar-Taj, where The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) takes him in and teaches him of astral planes and other dimensions, despite his overpowering arrogance and ego. Evil sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his followers steal magic texts and scriptures to summon the powerful Dormammu of the Dark Dimension, where time does not exist and everyone can live forever. Strange, alongside The Ancient One and another student, Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) must unite to stop them harnessing the power to control both time and the whole world. The film will attempt to turn the little-known character into a new fan-favourite, similar to Deadpool and Ant-Man.

A rather British ensemble cast turn in solid performances in Disney's fourteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Benedict Cumberbatch's role as a superhero feels a little bit overdue, as the British sensation seemingly shot to stardom as soon as the first season of Sherlock ended. With eyes firmly on a franchise, he puts in a committed performance and, unlike Sherlock co-star Martin Freeman, his accent settled down quickly and convincingly enough. Swinton is as good as she usually is and Eijiofor is really quite fine,  although his character is a little thinly-sketched in places. Rachel McAdams continues to be one of Hollywood's most underserved actresses, even after confirming her brilliance in the Oscar-winning Spotlight earlier this year, although she does more than enough with her limited material to make me hopeful that she can grow into something more than a perfunctory love interest in the all-but confirmed sequel. As with most superhero villains, Mikkelsen's Kaecilius is little more than a tool to kickstart and maintain the script, but the eye make-up was on point and Mikkelsen does what he can with the material, much like McAdams. Again, he is a talented actor that Hollywood seemingly cannot do right by.

Visually, Doctor Strange may be one of the most spectacular films of the year, with state-of-the-art CGI possibilities creating jaw-dropping and kaleidoscopic effects. Folding buildings and twisting streets feed into the multi-dimensional visual flair, which is bolstered further by the seamless use of 3D technology that brings the world to life in front of our very eyes. It rekindles the effects created by the likes of Avatar and Inception, themselves innovative films cemented in the history books for their awe-inspiring use of 3D technology. Unlike many other superhero films of the year, Doctor Strange is a vivid, vibrant and psychedelic picture in its use of colour and rich in its imagery and settings, identifying a distinctive style that sets it out from other genre offerings and Marvel's own batch of films. Director Scott Derrickson, more typically associated with his work in horror and micro-budgeted films, works wonders with the visuals and direction of the film. On more than a handful of occasions he rally amazes, most notable during Stranges' journey through the dimensions in the first act, the broken street chase in the second and the reversing destruction in the third and final act. He doesn't, however, always work wonders with the story or script...

Doctor Strange is a very interesting character, evoking memories of early-day Iron Man but with a little less charm and likeability; fundamentally, that's a character flaw and something very difficult for the actor or film-makers to convince audiences of otherwise. Already, they start on a little iffy footing. They really do their best to turn this around at the mid-point, but the character beats and arc are forced and unearned - it doesn't occur naturally and lacks the power to convince. In essence, Doctor Strange isn't a very likeable character and the script does him, and the other supporting characters, absolutely no favours. It lacks anything regarding an emotional core and it feels relatively low-stake because of this: because we're not invested and because we don't really care who makes it out alive, quite frankly. The style is certainly there but the substance isn't - well it tries to be but it is just too incoherent.

Doctor Strange does just about enough as the 'smaller' Marvel film of the year to keep momentum up, even if it doesn't completely thrill and excite as one hoped it would. Still, it's brave and it's bold, introducing a new character so early into Phase Three and it is a visual thrill, serving up some of the best effect of the year; in fact, I'd go as far as to suggest this is a front-runner for Best Visual Effects at the upcoming Academy Awards. You can't help but become frustrated that, after the incredible Civil War earlier this year, Marvel can't keep up with their own bar of success, but they still remain the clear frontrunners of the genre even with this more middle of the road entry. Visually, it's Marvel's most ambitious film to date - I just wish its story and formula was too.


Summary: Doctor Strange's mind-bending, psychedelic visuals and solid cast do just about enough to distract for some, but others will be frustrated with the film's low-stakes and forced character beats that lacks an emotional core and drive.

Highlight: As said, the visuals really set this out from any other superhero film, even if the narrative/structure/story doesn't.