Another year, and another Marvel character origins story, although this time its a little different. Admittedly, Dr. Stephen Vincent Strange is a superhero that I wasn't very familiar with at all - an ultra potent magician who taps into the mystical realm as the source of his power. I was initially unmoved by the trailer, with its Inception on acid visuals, and never having watched an episode of the television series Sherlock. However, the premise was a bit more intriguing than the usual suspects line-up of popular characters, so I decided to open my mind (so to speak). Although I'm most likely one of the very few who has yet to watch Cumberbatch's portrayal of Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective - I've actually only seen the actor in Star Trek Into Darkness as that film's rasping (almost) pantomime villain - it transpires he was perfectly cast in the role of an arrogant, supremely skilled surgeon whose narcissism is his eventual downfall. Much later in the movie, Strange throwing his cloak around his shoulders in glorious slo-mo is surely a future iconic moment.
The first half of the film, as Strange travels to Nepal on his road to recovery has shades of Batman Begins with a touch of The Golden Child thrown into the cauldron. Once accepted by (the naturally excellent) Tilda Swinton's The Ancient One - and the obligatory adequate level of sorcery apprenticeship received - the narrative switches focus, as Strange learns of the threat to the universe and very reluctantly accepts the mantle as a defender of the earth. This is where the visual effects assume centre stage, and the standard is typical of what we have come to expect from Marvel, i.e. very impressive - its even quite possibly in a different dimension compared to many of the other films. In addition to the aforementioned Inception style sequences, there are a plethora of stylish/inventive set pieces that should have those becoming fatigued by super powered punch ups nodding enthusiastically with approval (astral projection anyone?).
Strangely (*ahem*) I expected the tone of Dr. Strange to be a lot more serious and brooding (much in the way that Batman Begins is dark and downbeat), but I'm pleased that Marvel's signature fun streak is alive and well. There are plentiful humorous interludes which are scattered throughout the narrative, such as Strange's playful interactions with the stern faced Benedict Wong - including discovering the joys of Beyoncé - and a hilarious tangle involving the good doctor and his magical cloak to name a couple. In Scott Derrickson, Marvel continue their trend for acquiring interesting and diverse directors to oversee their projects. With his roots primarily in horror (Sinister, Exorcism of Emily Rose, Deliver Us From Evil), Derrickson was a shrewd choice for handling the darker aspects of the story, not to mention the opening act of the movie in which Strange suffers his horrific accident.
Although my opening sentence suggests otherwise, I don't think you can really criticise Dr. Strange too much for being yet another origin movie. They are a necessary evil in getting the characters onto the screen, and Marvel do them better than any other studio except maybe for the aforementioned Warner's Chris Nolan Batman movie. Marvel should be applauded for having the cojones to bring to the screen comparatively obscure figures - to non seasoned comic book readers like myself at least - as it could easily go the way of Ghost Rider. My only real gripe with Dr. Strange is that by the time we're into the third act, the creative juices begin to show some signs of exhaustion, and revert to that old superhero movie chestnut of all out CGI good(bad)ness and mass city annihilation (although this time its in Hong Kong).