So after giving us Norse gods, cryogenically frozen super-soldiers, talking raccoons, and a man who can communicate with ants, the Marvel Cinematic Universe now add magic and mysticism to the mix with Doctor Strange.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon whose life is irrevocably changed when a car accident ruins his hands. Determined to heal, he tracks down a man (Benjamin Bratt) who was able to walk again after being paralysed. The man tells Strange of a place- Kamar-Taj - where, through study of magic, he was able to walk again. Initially dismissing this as nonsense, Strange eventually travels to Kathmandu in search of Kamar-Taj... and finds it. Under the tutelage of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Strange discovers a whole new plane of existence... but also faces the forces of darkness who threaten to destroy it.
I was intrigued that- just as they did with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians Of The Galaxy- Marvel would follow Captain America: Civil War by introducing a completely new character into the fold. However, this has proven to be a canny move (especially given the wide-reaching ramifications of Civil War on the MCU).
Performances are really strong: Cumberbatch is brilliant as the haughty Strange, coming to terms with a new reality and grudgingly coming to realise that there are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamt of in his philosophy. He also gets some wonderfully snarky one-liners, giving Robert Downey Jr a run for his money. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a dignified, stoic performance as Mordo, another of The Ancient One's disciples who helps Strange in his training. Rachel McAdams provides heart as Dr. Christine Palmer, Strange's colleague and ex-lover who stands by him after his accident- and provides support in more ways than one. Mads Mikkelsen provides a suitable amount of menacing zealotry as the villainous Kaecillius.
There was some dissent amongst commentators at the casting of Tilda Swinton- a white British woman- as The Ancient One (typically an old Tibetan man), with accusations of whitewashing being levelled at the production. Despite this, Swinton's performance is one of the high points. She's powerful, endlessly watchable and surprisingly funny. She eschews any stereotypes of the 'wise old mentor' whilst still fulfilling that role. Similarly, there was initially some criticism when it was announced that the character of Wong- who has been Strange's tea-making manservant- was going to be included in the film. However, the role has been revamped- he is now a fighter and the librarian of Kamar-Taj- and is played wonderfully by the deadpan Benedict Wong.
There are some absolutely mind-blowing visual effects which are just a delight for the eyes and the mind. Especially good are the Inception-style bending of reality, making buildings turn in on themselves in a stylishly Escher-like kaleidoscope. There's also a brilliant fight sequence- done in reverse as scaffolding reassembles itself and bits of building reattach- when Strange defends the Hong Kong sanctum from attack. The effects of the astral plane and projection are great and there's some amazing work done on Strange's Cloak Of Levitation (almost a character in its own right) which provides some of the film's funniest moments. I'd hazard to say this might actually be worth seeing in 3D.
As usual with Marvel films, stay til the very end- there's a mid-credits scene which gives a tantalising set-up for a future Marvel movie and an end-credits scenes which promises some interesting times ahead for the good Doctor.
I've enjoyed all of the Marvel movies to a greater or lesser degree. With Doctor Strange, I think I've found my new favourite. Definitely worth two hours of your time.
Rating: 5 out of 5