Frank Roddy, Derrickson does Ditko: A Review of Doctor Strange

Frank Roddy is a writer and game designer who endeavours to one day have a place on the internet more dignified than his Twitter account. He genuinely believes Keanu Reeves deserves more credit for his role as Ted “Theodore” Logan but still hasn’t bothered to watch John Wick.

Studio: Marvel Studios
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofar, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong
Certification: 12A
Runtime: 1hr 55mins

Benedict Cumberbatch. Chiwetel Ejiofar. Tilda Swinton. Mads Mikkelsen. These are names more associated with dramas and Oscar bait than with capes and spandex, yet here they are in Marvel’s 14th film in its Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange.

Directed by Scott Derrickson, Doctor Strange is an origin story that for once doesn’t involve experiments, radiation or just all the money. An arrogant neurosurgeon left unable to work because of nerve damage, Stephen Strange eventually turns to magic for help. Because of course he does. Because a movie about him finding value in his life aside from his work would be what these actors would usually be in but this is a Marvel movie dammit.

This isn’t to say the cast phones it in however; the acting is compelling and convincing throughout even when discussing multiverses and other dimensions. Cumberbatch’s American accent is without fault, at least in that I never thought about it during the film; though I’ll defer judgment on that to American audiences.

The downside of this impressive cast is the expectations they bring with them. You could be forgiven for expecting this to be the most dramatic Marvel movie yet, and not in the buildings falling, robots attacking sense. At the very least, Scott Derrickson’s background in horror movies should indicate that something is going to be upsetting on some level for viewers. Instead, these honours are still around Captain America: Civil War’s waist.

Unfortunately Doctor Strange does not capitalise on the expertise of those involved. Instead, the movie suffers for the humour it attempts to inject. Campy, almost Benny Hill-esque at times, the comedy often interrupts some of the movie’s tensest moments; a real shame given the calibre of the actors involved. For me this was the film’s greatest flaw. It by no means ruins the viewing experience and no joke by itself is particularly poor, but it all adds up to me asking about the dramatic moments that could have been. Though the loss of any of Benedict Wong’s comedic moments in this film would have been hard to justify.

I can’t help but speculate that this overuse of humour was a reaction to audience’s poor reception of DC’s grim tone. That’s right, Zack Snyder’s messing up movies he’s not even involved in now. If I can somehow pin X-Men: Apocalypse on him, I’ll be able to blame him for every superhero movie blunder of 2016.

Inconsistent tone aside, Doctor Strange is a very well-made movie. Visually, it is a great piece of work with physics bending and the dark dimension being portrayed in fantastical ways reminiscent of Steve Ditko’s work on the Doctor Strange comic books. So this is not a movie to walk into halfway through its run time while tripping balls. Or maybe it’s the perfect movie for that.

If you’re reading this and thinking all this talk of other dimensions is a bit daunting, I can assure you that Doctor Strange handles its exposition well. Those familiar with the first Thor film will recall its digestible approach to lore and this film shares this ease. What is different is the feeling of significance.

While Thor’s exposition had a sense of “This is so you don’t think this is too stupid to enjoy,” the exposition and references in Derrickson’s Marvel debut don’t just feel like connective tissue to the rest of the MCU. Doctor Strange can certainly be viewed and enjoyed as a standalone film, but there can be no doubt that this movie is setting up a whole new branch of Marvel’s mythology and brand. So even if Doctor Strange doesn’t appeal to you as much as other superhero films, it may well be required viewing for fans of the overall franchise.

Thankfully, Doctor Strange is not tedious homework in that respect. Despite its sometimes intrusive humour, it is a visually stunning, well-acted film that will leave you more curious than frustrated with the concepts it introduces. And I say that as someone still annoyed that Keanu Reeves isn’t playing the titular role. Cumberbatch did well, but can you imagine Reeves’ reaction to finding out magic is real?

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