Horror veteran Scott Derrickson leaves the scary stuff behind to direct Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch in Marvel's surprisingly funny and arguably most audacious film to date, Doctor Strange.
Neurosurgeon Dr Stephen Strange seemingly has it all – a swanky apartment in the middle of New York City, a caring colleague-turned-lover and a high-profile career. But when his hands are mangled in a (particularly grisly) road accident and no medicine or further scientific practice can restore them to their former glory, Strange seeks out an underground group of sorcerers, led by the mysterious Ancient One to introduce him to the healing (and other more important) powers of the mystic arts.
During his lessons, he soon discovers that the sorcerers are gearing up to fight Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former magic master who has turned against the group he once aligned himself with in pursuit of ever-lasting life and a higher purpose. But such things always come at a cost and he's not looking to foot the bill...
Of all the Marvel movies to date, Doctor Strange is arguably the only one in the studio's catalogue that has had a point to prove when it comes to its reception. The run-up to the film's release, while largely eagerly-anticipated by dedicated superhero fans, was also steeped in huge negativity, particularly over worries that the villain would end up lacking presence and the "whitewashed and gender-bending" casting of Tilda Swinton as comic-book character, The Ancient One.
As it turns out, cinema-goers' doubts were unfortunately proved right with Mikkelsen's baddie Kaecilius, who is sorely underdeveloped when it comes to both his motives and backstory, but then again there is the argument that is he really meant to be the villain? In this film more so than any other in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – yes, even Zemo in Civil War – it's certainly not black-and-white. With Swinton however, it's glaringly evident that the risk pays off and the studio's controversial casting decision was justified, with the chameleonic actress delivering the best performance among the star-studded line-up.
It's no surprise given his experience playing arrogant yet oddly likeable know-it-all's such as Sherlock and Alan Turing, Cumberbatch shines as Strange, making him witty and charming when he so easily could have been cold and inaccessible. Meanwhile, McAdams and Chiwetel Ejiofor both do their best with the material they're given. It's just a shame that neither had enough screen time to really sink their teeth into their roles; particularly McAdams, whose caring yet no-pushover, "love interest" Christine Palmer seems far more than just that.
With such a formidable cast delivering grounded performances, the film can afford to delve deep into the realms of magic, and boy, does it! Anyone who's seen the mind-bending and psychedelic trailers will already have some inkling as to how impressive this film's visuals are but only on the big screen can you really gauge, or more so, appreciate just how far Marvel is pushing the boundaries when it comes to special effects. Brace yourself, expect brightly-coloured wormholes, mini-Cumberbatch's falling into larger Cumberbatch's irises and hands sprouting hands, sprouting hands. Yep.
The film's wonderfully different aesthetics are mirrored in its equally bold script too, putting a refreshingly new kind of hero at the forefront, that's not afraid to break the rules for the greater good. (Something that's undoubtedly going to be addressed in future instalments if the end-credits scene is anything to go by). Unlike almost all of the best-known Marvel heroes such as Captain America, Hulk and Thor, Strange's physical abilities aren't his strongest asset – his spirit is.
In that sense, Strange is most comparable to Tony Stark aka Iron Man; a similarly wealthy genius who loses everything (when he's critically wounded, kidnapped and held captive by a terrorist group in Afghanistan) and is forced to build himself back up by constructing a suit of metal armour to help him escape and keep him alive. In Doctor Strange, the protagonist is equally as desperate – hopeless without his former talents – and ends up being far away from home on a journey of self-betterment.
But here, instead of using his brains like Stark, Strange actually has to "forget everything that [he thinks] he knows" and open his mind to the possibility of different realities and the power of belief. There's no denying that his intelligence plays a key part in him learning all things mystic arts but there's something to be said, albeit cheesy, in presenting the idea that thinking you can do something is a huge step towards actually being able to do it. It's nice to know you don't need a special serum, billionaire parents or be an Asgardian god to be super sometimes, in't it?
Co-writers Derrickson, Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill's defiance in abiding by typical tropes doesn't just apply to the characters either but the film's narrative too. Almost every movie in this genre builds to a "save the day" crescendo where the heroes pull together, fight the enemy and quite often, do some serious damage when it comes to their surroundings along the way but things don't quite go that way in Doctor Strange. The less that's said about the ending the better but to offer up something so inventive and clever whilst still be in-keeping with the overall tone and hero is one commendable feat.
For all of its triumphs in bucking Marvel movie trends though, Doctor Strange has one obvious likeness to previous films that hinders it sometimes rather than benefits the outcome... and that's how laugh-out-loud funny it is. It never feels forced in fairness and granted, every joke lands – with the wi-fi gag sadly spoiled by trailer two rendering the biggest guffaw – putting it on par with the likes of Ant-Man or Guardians Of The Galaxy in regards to the comedy stakes.
But with so many potential glimmers for "badassery" (and to provide the MCU with a scene as awesome as when the Avengers "assembled" on screen during the Battle of New York in the 2012 movie), lost in the name of humour, it becomes frustrating to an audience member looking for those "superhero" moments.
Doctor Strange isn't without its minor flaws but for a first introduction to some more new faces in the ever-growing superhero franchise, it certainly does well. Despite its uniqueness, it finds a worthy and fitting place on the Marvel mantle thanks to its strong script and its even more compelling cast. Doctor Strange will return the credits read? Something about the movie makes us think, audiences won't be able to wait.