Take a kaleidoscope – this is an early DISCLAIMER that you should pay attention to (hence it being bold): this review requires the one reading to own/purchase a kaleidoscope, if you don’t have one of course your imagination may serve as an adequate tool to recreate the necessary effect, however, for those lacking in the stated, a kaleidoscope is recommended – I will repeat, TAKE YOUR NEWLY PURCHASED/TREASURED kaleidoscope; place it gently against one of your eyes, close the other; the world you will be immersed in will be that of diverse colours; twist the bottom section; BluesGoldsGreensPinksPurples flow into one another. This is a world devoid of grey; a void of pulsating colour, that you are the only witness to.
At its best Doctor Strange, the fourteenth film from Marvel Studios, provides everything anyone could desire from the mystical instrument that is the kaleidoscope. But, like most beautiful things, its superficial nature becomes apparent; the shard cracks and colours splinter in every direction.
To distil the film down to a conventional phrase, that provides both resonance for the plot and its overall tone, it is hard not to arrive at the term origin story. Now, despite many critics turning their nose up at the very mention of this, I consider the origin story to be a ripe format, that talented writers and directors can exploit to form a true bond between audience and character. And unfortunately, with the presentation of Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) I could not help feeling that the filmmakers provided only a slight opportunity for an emotional connection. The film’s opening act – the one where the audience first encounter the narcissistic neurosurgeon – seems to flash by without any real weight attached. Thus, when tragedy strikes and Strange’s car crashes, causing him to lose the ability to maintain steady hands, I felt indifferent. I did not know what the film wanted me to feel, whether it was sadness or a sense of justice being served. Consequently, the lack of investment in the character meant that I had a weird sense of meta-realisation (a term that I know sounds as though it should come from the lips of the Ancient One), wherein I became aware that this was just an unoriginal peripeteia that the character must then overcome. Great origin stories, due to their ability to sap away awareness of convention, make you sympathise with the character to such an extent that you can see no end to their despair, meaning that when gratification does arrive it is an oasis of relief. Sadly, Strange’s heroic rise is not only foreseeable, it is generic.
Generic is also an apt adjective to describe the overall plot of the film. If recent releases – with the notable exception of Captain America: Civil War – are anything to go by, it seems that the superhero genre has plateaued in terms of originality when it comes to the formula of their stories. Simple and sometimes unclear motivations; heavy exposition; obvious reveals and resolutions; a weak villain (a Marvel Trademark); all plague this movie. Also, parallels between Doctor Strange’s weak conclusion, the naff ending of Suicide Squad, and even the final conflict of Deadpool, are apparent. And this is a rut that hopefully is only a temporary speck on what has been a rather gratifying genre up until recently.
Despite this, it not all a barren dimension of waste. To rush over a few positives, the performances are all great, as one would expect given a cast that features the marvellous likes of Tilda Swinton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen and Chiwetel Ejiofor. In addition, the character of Dr Strange is an inherently fresh and exciting one to bring into the MCU, and his impact on subsequent films and the magical mythology it will bring is something I truly look forward to seeing. As the Ancient One tells Strange near the films beginning, it appears we have only been seeing the potential of the Marvel multiverse ‘through a keyhole’, that hopefully Dr Strange will unlock.
There is, however, one truly triumphant aspect to Doctor Strange that saves it from the dreaded shackles of mundanity, and that is the overwhelmingly stunning visual stimulus it provides. Let us return to the kaleidoscope- this is a late DISCLAIMER that runs the risk of alienation: the next part of our visual process should be experienced to the tune of Let There be More Light by Pink Floyd, as any kaleidoscope veteran knows Floyd are truly a band capable of providing an adequate soundtrack – I will again repeat, let us return to our kaleidoscopes; the sound of David Gilmour’s guitar whirling in the background; place it against you alternate eye; focus on one speck of black; turn the bottom gently and imagine that the spec you are focusing on is a man; not just any man, but Benedict Cumberbatch wearing a startlingly amazing red cape; he flows through BluesGreensRedsPinks. At its most audacious, Derikson’s direction takes on such vivid trips through multiple dimensions and astral planes, that are simultaneously amazing and terrifying. The fight scenes make you follow every character as they
through inverted buildings, floors and multiverses, in a manner that I hope my typography adequately conveys. These are moments that echo 2001: A Space Odyssey, Salvador Dali and the Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, in such a perfect way that I have never seen in mainstream cinema. Thankfully, these moments are scattered generously throughout the film, as they are truly the embodiment of Doctor Strange’s brilliance.
Like the kaleidoscope, Doctor Strange is a miraculous achievement of the aesthetic. Its tremendous ability to depict warping reality, time and logic is an outstanding achievement that should not be undervalued. Yet, this is a film; a form of storytelling. And sadly, and rather paradoxically, for a piece of art that contains within it glimmers of the sublime, it does fall victim to the generic. A real shame, that I hope your newly purchased/rediscovered Kaleidoscope will ease.
RATING: 6.5/10: Refreshing, new, original yet also consisting of generic failures. However, I cannot wait to see Cumberbatch revise this role in the future.