(Note: Spoilers abound! This review is meant to be read only after watching the film.)
Before we begin, I must confess that I sat in the theatre without having heard of Doctor Strange. (Marvel fans, you can stop tut-tutting and shaking your heads now.) I only went for Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton, so do expect a heavily-biased movie review.
To be honest, I didn’t have much expectations after all of the sub-par movies Marvel has been cranking out lately. The opening left a rather weak impression - it throws the viewer into a slick, visually-appealing fight scene, but I felt that the lack of a backstory made it hard for viewers to emphatize with the titular character. But then, when all hope seems lost, Benedict Cumberbatch swankily swoops in as Stephen Strange to save the day! Here, director Scott Derrickson successfully capitalises on Cumberbatch’s reputation for portraying intellectual savants (thinkSherlock, The Imitation Game). Cumberbatch was a convincing virtuoso in the scene where Strange smoothly answers trivia about obscure jazz records while deftly conducting a tricky brain operation.
Cutting to a few scenes later, Tilda Swinton unveils herself to be the Ancient One as Strange knocks at her door and begs to be taught the mystic arts in order to heal his hands. I appreciated the Ancient One’s clean-shaven head as this gender neutrality lent an air of transcendence befitting of one that has lived as long as she did. I didn’t dislike Swinton’s exhibit of obvious disdain for Strange either (as his arrogance reminded her of her former student Kaecilius), because that made her character approachable – a quality rarely associated with characters like the Ancient One. Others might beg to differ, but to me it spoke of our inescapability from human nature.
Surprisingly, one of the more likeable characters in Doctor Strange isn’t even human. The Cloak of Levitation is a magical relic with a mind of its own that chose Strange as its owner. In one scene, the cloak wilfully pulled Strange away from the axe he was running towards, enabling Strange to ward off certain danger.
The ending scene – where Strange looks contemplatively at his scarred, trembling hands, before dropping them to his sides in resignation as he gazes wistfully out of the window – was particularly compelling. He very well could have cured his hands using magic, but he decided to keep them as a reminder of his personal growth: a decision that I found extremely relatable. Not everything can be perfect; not everything has to be. The movie also has two end credit scenes (which you can read about here if you missed them). Those scenes felt like an unnecessary extension of the flick’s otherwise tidy ending, but I suppose they were necessary for Marvel to tie in the film with the rest of the franchise, and draw us back in for more.
Doctor Strange is worth watching for the visuals alone – there were parts of buildings unfolding and folding into themselves that were reminiscent of the dream sequences in Inception. Cinematographer Ben Davis masterfully blends the cosmos and mind-tripping visuals without tipping over to stoner film territory.
In my opinion, the film’s biggest weakness was that it felt a bit too formulaic. Like nearly all superhero movies, character and plot development becomes secondary to the action; most of the characters only appear as fodder to nudge Strange along his journey of world salvation. For instance, Mads Mikkelsen, who plays the character Kaecilius, described his character as an anti-hero from another dimension who becomes a villain in this one: “He believes that the Ancient One is just protecting her own power and that the world may be better off if we were to allow some of these other things (or beings) through…He wants to make the planet look wonderful and to save the world, but he has a different way of doing it.” Kaecilius could have made a much more convincing argument against the Ancient One or Strange’s beliefs if he was given more screen time.
All in all, Doctor Strange is one of the better flicks amongst Marvel’s recent releases. I would recommend watching it in 3D to fully appreciate the film’s brilliant effects – if one has time to spare during SMU hell week, that is.