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Doctor Strange - Review * 26 October 2016

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This review is spoiler-free, aside from descriptive plot setup.

Benedict Cumberbatch is truly a leading man.

Sorry if it seems like we're pointing out the obvious. After all, we've known it for ages thanks to Sherlock. But in Doctor Strange, he is shouldered with the responsibility of carrying a gigantic, expensive, effects filled action blockbuster, and he makes it look as effortlessly easy as you'd hope, want and probably expect.

For the uninitiated, this is one of those often portrayed superhero origin stories. In short setup - brilliant yet glory seeking surgeon loses the use of his hands, travels the world, and then unexpectedly gets swept up in learning about magic and other, odd dimensions of existence. It happens. Truth be told, Doctor Strange already shares much in the way of DNA with other Marvel Cinematic Universe heroes that have already graced the cinema screen. As is relatively common among the characters origin films, the basic through-line finds them overcoming personal weakness to emerge better than they were. While possibly like the literal physical weakness of Steven Rogers before he becomes Captain America, Strange is closer to Tony Stark and Thor (and not simply the natty red cape in the case of the latter). He is arrogant and hubristically overconfident, until unforeseen events that are ultimately actually caused by his own actions forces him to better himself. Tony Stark decides a weapons-test-come-publicity-event in the middle of a war zone is a good idea, leading to severe injury. Thor rushes headlong into battle without considering patience and politics, and is thus stripped of his powers until he is worthy of regaining them. Stephen Strange loses the use of his hands thanks to a phone holding his attention while driving a Lamborghini Huracan (Hey, at least it's glamourously ironic) causing him to search for any possible way to repair them, but instead leading him to places beyond comprehension.

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First up, there's not much of Sherlock to be seen here, despite the on-paper character traits being remarkably similar. Both are brilliant, intelligent, arrogant individuals, sure with absolute certainty that they are the best person in the room. What separates Strange from Holmes though is a hefty dollop of fully formed humanity. Benedict's interpretation of Sherlock Holmes is of a man who is still finding his way through human social interaction at a relatively basic level. Stephen Strange is a man used to the social high life, living on materialistic wealth while intent on saving lives for his own self publicity. He is surprisingly polite too, and Benedict brings vulnerability to temper the arrogance. Early scenes, spanning months, where he attempts to adapt to his new status quo display a shattering anger that is still strikingly sympathetic. Later on there's an intriguing turn where Strange directly questions the use of his burgeoning powers when he is a doctor and thus sworn to protect life, displaying more acting material for Benedict to get his teeth into. There's near constant physical acting work too, the damaged hands constantly shaking, while visually there's a fun parallel in terms of iconic dress sense. There's a possibility the Cloak of Levitation could give Sherlock's Belstaff coat a run for its money - not least as it's pretty handy in a fight - and yes, there's the inescapable 'turning your coat collar up so you look cool' moment. Combine everything together and this is a realistic, naturalistic performance in a film that is intentionally anything but. Benedict utterly grounds proceedings when the surroundings are plunging into visual insanity, and it is arguably the strongest performance by the lead actor in any MCU movie. He ultimately picks to paint in the tiny details, instead of the broad strokes that define other characters.

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The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, but the film has an interesting quirk in that there is little sense of a truly developing family unit of characters here. There's a striking lack of bromance for instance between Strange and his contemporary Mordo, played by with chilly strength by Chiwetel Ejiofor - though comics readers of the character may be clued in as to exactly why that decision has been taken. Instead, the warmest relationship in the film is with The Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton. Neatly and cleverly sidestepping the white-washing issues that plagued early publicity for the film, The Ancient One is an intentionally mysterious presence, softly yet sympathetically aloof while a total badass to boot. Cumberbatch and Swinton share arguably the most eloquent scene in the film, wrapped in visual effects but the performances shining through, and it's frankly astonishing to think a film of this type allows actors of such calibre to play off each other to such a standard.

As bad guy Kaecilius, Mads Mikkelsen (brother of Lars 'Magnussen' Mikkelsen, but you knew that) is an imposing physical presence laced with sardonic wit, all while his less than involving motivations boil down to the standard 'evil dude wants to summon destruction because he thinks he's right' plotline. Interesting parallels are drawn between Kaecilius and Strange throughout though, and a moment where the latter directly touches a nerve in the Doctor's worldview feels genuinely potentially dangerous. Rounding out the magical group is another Benedict, Benedict Wong, as, uh, Wong. Entertainingly stoic, Wong has wisely been elevated from the comic interpretation as Strange's manservant to a much weightier role here, though he still comedically falls victim to the headstrong actions of Strange at times. The film also winningly borrows Robert Downey Jr's Irene Adler, with Rachel McAdams inhabiting an underused spot in the cast as Christine Palmer, a former sort-of flame of Strange's. The pair don't get enough time together to properly spark off each other, but it's pleasing that Christine is closer to Natalie Portman's Jane Foster than Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, with the added bonus that the plot doesn't decide to put her in need of distressed damsel rescue at any point. She is simply a highly capable woman, excellent at her job, who Strange comes to rely on more than once.  

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Director Scott Derrickson has a background in horror cinema, and that skill-set is put to subtle yet imaginative use. The 'magic' here verses the wand work in the Harry Potter films is arguably like the difference that separates the custard pies of Bugsy Malone and the bullets of The Untouchables. There's a crunchy, dangerous physicality to the effects based conjuring that serves to heighten the action, glassy weapons pulled out of thin air and crackling fire-like whips exploding from hands. Couple that with the dizzying, possibly even overwhelming collapsing kaleidoscope cityscapes that frame many set pieces - it's easy to think recently and call what you're seeing 'Inception on Speed', but we'd prefer 'Escher on Acid' - and it's clear that the visuals on offer in the film are astonishing, and that's even before exceptionally pretty dimensional travel comes into it. Doctor Strange is an utter feast for the eyes, while Michael Giachinno's debut Marvel Studios score is a sonic highlight, ranging from the quiet to the epic through an array of instrumentation and plunging choir. It mixes the composer's familiar flavours with something new, resulting in a woozy brew infused with the sounds of classic rock that sounds utterly unlike any other Marvel soundtrack. The film does suffer some mild problems, mostly at script level. The humour is chucklesome rather than uproariously funny - you know there might be a slight issue when the first sting in the end credits is funnier than any intended laugh in the main film itself - and the motivations of the bad guys are relatively nebulous for much of the runtime. That said though, the denouement is imaginatively clever once you realise what is going on, and only serves to reinforce the greatest strength of this main character as he is forced to realise it - his most powerful weapon is not his body, but his mind.

And there we again swing back to that obvious parallel. While both are brilliant and intelligent men, Doctor Strange is not Sherlock, and Benedict Cumberbatch has obviously taken great pains to ensure that in his performance. It is a delight to see the actor placed in command of such a huge canvas, bringing something entirely new to his acting repertoire while ultimately underlining and putting a full stop on the fact that yes, he can absolutely carry a film of this size, complexity and budget with ease. If you are a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, Doctor Strange is an absolute must-see joy. 

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