You may relax, your calendar is not broken: there are, as usual, two Marvel Studios films on release this year, it’s just that one of them hasn’t come out until now – not quite the first time the studio has done something like this, but not exactly their standard practice either. Anyway, not content to rest on their laurels and do another sequel with an established brand, Marvel have opted to press on with bringing what sometimes feels like their entire catalogue of characters to the big screen (well, except the ones that Fox still have the rights to, anyway). This time, Scott Derrickson has been put in charge of adapting one of Marvel’s less prominent properties, a bit of a cult character from years gone by, if the truth be told. Yes, finally, it’s a movie version of Night Nurse!
Well, not quite, although one of the Night Nurse characters does appear (another one is sort-of in the Daredevil TV show, of course). No, the new movie is Doctor Strange, based on one of the few major Marvel characters not to primarily be a Stan Lee-Jack Kirby creation – on this occasion Lee worked with Steve Ditko. This was the same pairing which created Spider-Man, so you would think that the omens were good. Well, sort of, but we’ll come to that.
Stephen Strange, a brilliant but egotistical and obnoxious neurosurgeon, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is probably overdue to be making a major appearance in this kind of movie. (Yes, this does mean that Dr Strange is technically one of those superheroes who operates using his real name.) Strange has sort of nibbled around the edges of a romance with fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) – the Night Nurse character to whom I alluded earlier – but having a relationship is tricky as he is really much more in love with himself.
Things inevitably change when Strange is involved in a serious road accident which leaves him with severely damaged hands, thus ending his surgical career. Exhausting his fortune in pursuit of some kind of treatment for his condition, he eventually learns of a school in Nepal where apparently-miraculous cures have been known to happen. (The school obviously isn’t in Tibet, because Marvel want to sell their movie in China.) There, he encounters a mystic teacher known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her disciple Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and rapidly discovers that this is actually a school for your actual magicians and sorcerers…
Well, this isn’t enough to rattle a character played by a performer of the magnitude of Benylin Thundercrack, and so Dr Strange signs on to learn to become a magician, though he is excused the scene with the Sorting Hat and also quidditch practice. What he doesn’t know at first, however, is that a fallen disciple of the Ancient One (played by Mads Mikkelson) has entered into a pact with the dread Dormammu, tyrant of the Dark Dimension, and is planning to conspire in the world’s destruction in exchange for eternal life. Is there a doctor in the house?
It may seem a little odd for Marvel to have held Doctor Strange back until eight years into their franchise-of-franchises undertaking, especially when more minor characters (Ant-Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy) have already made their movie debuts. Maybe so, but Dr Strange has always been a slightly tricky proposition as a character – Steve Ditko’s extraordinary psychedelic artwork in the early issues from the 60s led many observers to assume that the only magic involved came from mushrooms, while from a story point of view, Dr Strange is often presented as so nebulously omnipotent that he can be very difficult to write for.
So, very nearly full marks to Derrickson and his team for coming up with a movie that is distinctively Strange while still remaining wholly accessible (I would guess) to the uninitiated viewer. (I’m sure casting a very popular performer like Cumbersome Bandersnatch won’t hurt the box office numbers either.) Marvel’s policy these days seems to be to offer up something which is partly very familiar and partly rather new, and it continues here.
I feel I should mention that one of my friends who I saw the film with disagreed, suggesting that every Marvel adaptation sticks close to exactly the same formula, basically that they all end with a city on the verge of spectacular destruction, and that this one is no exception – I should quickly add that he still thought this film was enjoyable. Personally I don’t agree – neither Ant-Man nor Civil War ended that way – but on the other hand, I do think Marvel have played it a bit too safe in the characterisation of Strange himself. At the beginning of the film, at least, he is wise-cracking and self-centred in exactly the way Robert Downey Jr was at the beginning of the first Iron Man, to the extent where they almost seem like the same character. I wouldn’t be surprised if the studio were attempting to position things so that Bellyhatch Cummerbund can take over as a mainstay of the series once Downey Jr’s salary requirements finally prove too exorbitant, but even so: for me this doesn’t excuse a scene where the traditionally reserved and courteous doctor calls an opponent a name for a body part which is not normally found in a medical textbook.
On the other hand, this film isn’t afraid to make some slightly eccentric choices, and I don’t just mean using a harpsichord on the soundtrack: there’s a very trippy sequence early on which seemed to me to be very faithful to the spirit of Ditko’s artwork, while the climax itself is considerably weirder than anything comparable from other Marvel movies. The film is well played by a strong cast and visually very striking, rather skilfully repurposing some Inception-style visuals in a more traditional fantasy-adventure context. I can even just about forgive the decision to make much of Dr Strange’s sorcery look basically like CGI-enhanced kung fu. (Not all – by the end of the movie his ability to warp space and time is so developed that one wonders just how they will be able to meaningfully challenge him during future appearances, although as mentioned this is a problem with the comics version of the character too.)
Once again – and by the hoary hosts of Hoggoth, how do they keep doing it?!? – Marvel have produced a movie which is very comfortable with its own identity while meshing seamlessly with their wider franchise – although, to be honest, the rest of the world is kept in abeyance, at least until the closing credits. Dr Strange looks like being an engaging addition to the ensemble, and I’m looking forward to seeing Clumsylatch Bandicoot spar with some of the more established faces of the series. No one in the world is making more consistently entertaining and accomplished genre movies at the moment – Doctor Strange won’t change your life, but I suspect you’ll have a good time watching it. A good adaptation of a challenging book.