Doctor Strange (12A.)
Directed by Scott Derrickson.
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong and Tilda Swinton. 115 mins
Marvel's big screen incarnation of The Avengers are the modern equivalent of The Rat Pack, a cosy, casual boys club (with Scarlett as the Angie Dickinson figure) celebrating relaxed success and casual superiority that is the only gang worth being in. Benedict Cumberbatch's successful introduction should see him successful ensconced as the group's Peter Lawford.
Doctor Strange, being the tale of a brilliant neurosurgeon who can no longer work after a serious car crash and ends up in Nepal learning magic and dimension spanning powers from someone called The Ancient One, is like David Copperfield (the magician, not the Dickens novel) crossed with House (the TV doctor not the building) in a Carlos Castaneda version of the TV series Kung Fu. It is surely the biggest load of old claptrap anyone has tried to lift off the comic book page on to the big screen, but such is the Marvel Studio alchemy that from this base material they have shaped perhaps the best comic book film of the year. What kind of messed up world is it where Dr Strange can fly rings around Batman and Superman?
The Marvel Cinematic Formula (MCF) is now so slick that it can productively applied to almost anything. This wasn't always the case, and Doctor Strange is what the Thor movies were grasping for. Obviously humour is the MCF's key ingredient and the Doctor has as many laughs as any film the studio has made. The humour is there to allow the casual, non-partisan viewer a way in: it means you don't have to take any of this too serious, but it doesn't denigrate or send up the material. Everybody is in on the silliness and there is no judgment.
The MCF is a uniform approach but it doesn't mean all the films are the same. Dr Strange is like all the other Marvel films, yet has its own unique character. The material is seeped in dated 60s/70s counter culture mysticism that shouldn't work today. Its approach is to embrace it while presenting it with Inception inspired visuals – cityscape folding in on themselves and characters jumping through dimensions and in and out of their bodies – that make it look entirely contemporary. The visuals are maybe just a smidgen short of staggering but are still beautiful to behold and mighty impressive for a comparatively small scale effort.
The humour must make it much easier for the actors, knowing that if they have to deliver a lot of baloney exposition there will also be a quip in there to undercut the tone and stop them looking po-faced. The film's cast is predominately British, with Tilda Swinton taking the role of The Ancient One, the guru figure who teaches Strange his powers. Not an obvious piece of casting but such is Swinton's androgynous and ageless appearance that, with a shaved head this pale, London born daughter of an army major-general can sort of pass for a timeless, male mystic from the Himalayas. Back in the 90s she made a film called Orlando, in which an English person lived for over 400 years and changed sex back and forth without anyone seeming to notice and her film career has embodied these qualities. She goes where she wants and we all seem to accept it.
Cumberbatch nails the lead role. He effortlessly embodies the lofty arrogance the role needs. His American accent is, arguably, perfunctory but that may be just as well. The performance is trading on a sense of haughty toff entitlement and as a swotty, slightly odd looking ex-public school boy who has been acclaimed as a global sex symbol, I guess nobody has that quite as much as him. His is the face Michael Gove imagines he sees looking back at him in the mirror every morning.