Superhero movies are flooding the market, but it’s been awhile since there has been a good superhero flick that centers around just one character.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Suicide Squad, X-Men, Avengers, Fantastic Four and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rely on an ensemble, but more recently, even titles that purport a lone superhero outing actually depend on a cast of lead characters.

Deadpool had Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead. Captain America: The Winter Soldier had Black Widow and Falcon. Captain America: Civil War had half the Avengers. Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice had well, the World’s Finest. Ant-Man is a legacy movie, with Hank Pym and his daughter heavily involved with the life of Scott Lang.

Even upcoming movies are stuffing multiple characters into one movie. Thor: Ragnarok has The Hulk. The Flash has Cyborg. Justice League has everybody and anybody from DC’s pantheon of heroes. Logan has X23 and Professor X. The Power Rangers have each other. You get the picture.

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It is not easy to get a movie that focuses on the heroic journey of just one man, but Doctor Strange does so, and it has emerged the better for it. And this is more impressive if you consider that the good doctor is not that well known, give his long comic book history, so the MCU has taken a C lister and given him the A list treatment and it’s a great spectacle.

Even if you are merely vaguely familiar with the premise, the setup of the comics and movie is simple. Stephen Vincent Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant surgeon, but also arrogant and self-centered. Every medical case he picks up must be challenging but ultimately solvable, so he stays away from anything that does not thrust him in the limelight.

This strains his relationship with his colleague and former lover, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), but nothing serves as a wake up call than a high speed car accident that shatters Stephen’s hands, to the point where he can no longer function normally, much less as a normal member of society and a surgeon.

The curious case of another man healed while suffering from a spinal accident leads Strange to Kathmandu, where he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who reveals that in the multiverse of things, Earth is but one dimension. The mystical arts of spell casting taps onto interdimensional energies, which can open up whole new worlds, or allow Strange to focus his energies into maintaining the integrity of his hands.

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Fellow magic master Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) helps shapes the path of magic for Strange, even as Strange makes him see things in a different light. The villain here is Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former master who is looking for immortality, in the form of Dormammu, the evil ruler of a dark dimension.

It’s typical superhero stuff, but director Scott Derrickson masterfully weaves in an origin story that is merely one chapter in an ongoing tale of good versus evil. The mantle of Sorcerer Supreme is an evolving one, and whether Strange takes it up or not is not a matter of choice, but of acceptance. Thankfully, he dumps much of the baggage of religion, mysticism, magic and the supernatural.

The established rules are simple. Traveling between location requires the use of a ring. Sorcerers need special items and weapons to aid them, but instead of finding the most powerful weapon, established artifacts will pick the sorcerer.

As always, humour plays a huge part in any MCU movies, and the tone here is similar to Guardians of the Galaxy and Iron Man – slightly irreverent but still amusing. Fans of comics know that the Doctor has a servant named Wong (Benedict Wong), but unlike Batman’s Alfred, Wong is also a capable sorcerer who chooses to team up with Strange.

But as with any first pairings, they need to know and trust each, and every scene between Cumberbatch and Wong is played for laughs, but in a good way. Yes, the Marvel way of making movies is rather formulaic and you’ve seen this in Iron Man, Captain America and Ant-Man, and the formula is repeated here but not in a bad way.

As for the bad, it has to be Tilda Swinton but it’s not what you think. Much has been said about the whitewashing of the Ancient One from being Asian man in the comics, to that of a white female in the movie, but you know what? Who cares?

The role of the Ancient One is a token one that has a meaning in name only, but has no character of any sort in this movie. She’s the equivalent of the Batarang, Mjolnir or Captain America’s shield – an important aspect of the character it is associated with, but even if he, or she, was Asian, it would have no bearing in the journey of Doctor Strange.

Swinton is rather wasted in this movie, as she scans through lines but doesn’t give them much weight. The only reason you even notice the Ancient One is because it is Swinton cast in that role, and if Derrickson’s aim was to take a token Asian character from the comics and not fall into typecasting and stereotyping of the aged, all knowing Asian Zen master, he did the right thing by making the switch.

Cumberbatch falls into the role of Strange very comfortably, and you can tell he’s having fun in the role, as much as he did playing Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness. He plays Strange as an arrogant but also as a compassionate soul, one that the audience will root for in his journey to heal his hands.

Another great character in the movie is the visual effects and if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve not seen anything yet. Yes, comparisons of Inception are obvious, but the folding of buildings, streets and even cities in a manner that would make M.C. Escher do a doubletake is breathtaking. The manner in which buildings fold open like a Chinese fan, or bend and curl up is a visual treat will cast a spell on viewers.

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And yes, there is a great nod to Steve Ditko in the film and the director even said that he wishes that the elusive artist would come of of seclusion to watch the movie.

And that final act. The final act is a love note to all great pop culture movies sewn into one. It’s the ending of Richard Donner’s Superman, and a recognition of Groundhog Day, and a nod to Constantine, The Matrix and M. Night Shyamalan, but done with so much love and detail. When I get my hands on the Blu-Ray release, it will be a scene that I can watch again and again.

And fans of Marvel Comics, pay close attention to the dialogue. Many things get named dropped, including the Avengers, the Living Tribunal, the Wand of Watoomb, and do you really want to know if the Eye of Agamotto is an Infinity Stone? Listen very carefully for your answer.

Watch out for TWO post credit scenes

Also, stay for two post credit scenes. The first one is a nice setup for Thor: Ragnarok, and the conversation between Strange and the God of Thunder not only sets up the movie, it also gives a very strong impression that Strange will appear in the film.

The second scene is the more notable one, not only because it sets up a new nemesis for Strange, it also validates what comic book fans already know, that this movie is about one man’s journey into a new world, and another man’s spiral into evil.


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Review overview

Story7
Characterisation7.5
Direction7
Geek Satisfaction9

Summary

Doctor Strange is a familiar movie, because we’ve all see Iron Man. The tone and structure are similar, and that is also because this movie is like an introduction to Marvel’s Third Phase, and they want to kick things off with a flawed but heroic character. And how do you follow the flawless casting of Robert Downey Jr? Why, you pick Benedict Cumberbatch of course.

7.6
Sherwin Loh

Sherwin Loh

Sherwin once held the Matrix of Leadership, but wisely passed it on to the rightful leader of the household.