A Strange ointment is just what the Doctor ordered for the MCU

The word “unique” is a very popular one these days. In life, many of us strive to be different from the norm to help emphasis our own identity. In work, we often try to appear as a one-of-a-kind to our employers to capture certain job position or promotion. Even in article writing a fresh approach is always the most welcome one, regardless of topic. The entertainment industry though – and more specifically films – is where the public obsession with uniqueness truly has escalated. Movie goers, critics and studios alike push for films to be unlike anything they’ve ever seen before, going as far as to bash a motion picture for being too similar to what has came before it. It may seem like a winning formula to the business suits and accountants, but a sequel that just rinse and repeats the initial story is a project wearing a noose before it’s even hit theatres.

This threat of similarity, of audiences growing bored of the same content again and again, is perhaps the greatest villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe will ever face. A franchise now spanning dozens of movies as well as TV shows, Netflix series and comic books, I’ve seen the damage over saturation can do. Many of my friends and peers have told me how they’re beginning to grow tired of seeing a Marvel flick hitting every 6 months, and don’t even bother tuning into the small screen adventures as they’re “all the same”. While I am still firmly sat in the first carriage of the MCU fan-train, I can certainly see their point of view. After all, there’s only so many times you can see Iron Man beat up another mech suit, watch Captain America punch a Nazi in the face or be ‘shocked’ that Loki has fooled his golden locked brother.

Doctor Strange, Marvel Studios latest hero to their multi billion ensemble, takes this critique and makes it vanish before our very eyes. If the trailers or premise didn’t make it clear enough, you’re going to be walking out of this movie seeing the most creative and unique addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet.

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In what is the studios’ promised final “origin story” movie, director Scott Derrickson and his team has ensured Strange’s debut into the world of the Avengers isn’t one to fall onto the mediocre wagon to accompany the ‘Thor’s and ‘Amazing Spider-Man’s of comic book movies. Don’t be absent minded of the title’s double meaning, Doctor Strange is strange; very strange. After giving us the core combatants with phase 1 and adding the cosmic side of things in phase 2, Marvel Studios are using third phase of the MCU to introduce the mystical side of the comics. At last we finally have magic brought into the world of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Iron Man, and it is a huge breath of fresh air.

The major advantage of having a movie franchise shaped by different directors, writers and creatives means that we are treated to new ideas and twists regularly. This isn’t exactly why Guardians of the Galaxy has such an emphasis on humour, Ant-Man is a superpowered heist movie. This time around, Marvel truly has let the creatives run wild to give us something we really haven’t seen before. Still bound by the laws of those before it, Doctor Strange has showed us the magical side of turn MCU while still being believable to the universe; quashing my biggest worry of the movie in the process. Slotting in sometime after Civil War in the modern day, Strange has the freedom go in any direction it so desires withiut having to conform to a certain way in order to line up with a specific future release. As a result, this is easily the most stand alone MCU movie we’ve seen yet, even more so than Chris Pratt’s Guardians adventures.

Don’t get to carried away though. Many of the classic traits of a superhero origins are present – tragic event, skeptical beginner, a leader and protege – but the execution really makes it something to be remembered. This is best observed in the focus on character depth and performances. There isn’t a single actor here I feel did a less than stellar job, with Tilda Swinton and fan favourite Benedict Cumberbatch being the most notable. The Sherlock actor really does nail the role as Stephen Strange, a character many fans for years have been calling his name for. This only adds a tremendous amount of believability to what is such an ‘out there’ concept and complicated character.

Indeed, it is in that characterisation where Doctor Strange’s writing truly excels. I can only describe our protagonist as nothing more than beautifully complex. He isn’t the clean cut nobleman of Steve Rogers, nor is painfully cocky like a Tony Stark. No, our doctor lies somewhere beyond the traditional scale of character judgement, which makes it only even more engaging to watch on screen. At first you may feel standoffish about him, concerned he’s just cut and paste of Robert Downey Jr’s perfect Iron Man, but once you get past the first act and follow his journey, you’ll see his arc is a truly satisfying one you’ll definitely want to revisit on repeat watchings. Many fans are speculating that Strange may indeed take centre stage of they Avengers roster once Downey Jr has had enough of the limelight. Given the sheer joy I had watching the good Doctor on his first outing, I am definitely more than happy to seen this come to fruition.

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Stepping our of the Strange love-in for a moment, the film’s supporting cast all hit their targets to give a great all round performance. Swinton’s Anicent One is a superb mentor for the movie, who carefully holds Strange’s and the audiences hand through this entirely new concept to the MCU. All the while others such as Bendict Wong’s Wong (just Wong, like Adele) provides some hilarious comic relief in the vein of perhaps Guardians’ Drax; but again with his own take on it not making it feel like a lazy reskin.

That said, some characters could have had a little more work done them. After treated to a great introduction, Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius almost takes a backseat to the story despite being the villain, with the plot only deciding to have him show up when it’s time for Strange to put a new skill to use. While each and every appearance of his is enjoyable, posessing enough depth to make him more than a moustache twirling and one dimensional baddie, I would have liked just a bit more into his story. A scene or two from his perspective would definitely have not gone a miss.

Our main supporting man, Mordu, I feel also struggles slightly to make a lasting impression – save for a couple moments I will not delve into. Like Kaecilius, I feel Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character could have benefited from a little more depth just so to get a better understanding of, even just a flashback sequence of before his days at Kamar-Taj. With a very suitable runtime of just under 2 hours however, any additional scenes may have felt a bit much in a film that already takes us on a journey of memorable sequences.

Doctor Strange may tick most boxes in the character department, but where it achieves – I mean really achieves – the most is in its visuals and direction. Oh boy does this movie have some great set pieces that is truly unique to the Marvel universe we know. From the clever balance between hand to hand combat and over the top CGI action sequences to the mind bending multi-verse concept to the weird but wonderful outer body experiences (kind of), we are truly treated to the most creative approach to a blockbuster movie I have seen in years. Derrickson and co. were always going to have a difficult time selling the mystic side of the Marvel universe to us, after all we’ve just had 13 movies that have told us all superpowers are just science, aliens or a combination of both. With thanks however to clearly very careful planning and appropriate pacing of the truly mad stuff, they’ve really sold it to us.

Ever since Disney released their live-action remake of The Jungle Book, I was very quick to jump on the appraisal of its visual effects calling it not only an early contender but deserved winning of the Best Visual Effects Oscar, tipping that no other picture this year will come close to what Favreau’s team accomplished. After witnessing the visually stunning and truly creative use of CG in Doctor Strange however, Mowgli and Baloo have some serious competition. I’m not going to spoil anything, but there’s one scene in particular than genuinely had me jaw dropped as something I have never seen done before, in comic book movies and film in general. While there are a few scenes that don’t look as fantastic as they perhaps could have (notability near the beginning), its obvious this was a book balancing decision to ensure the major moments really stood out. It worked.

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Our first look into the magical side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t reinvent the wheel; this is still an origin story whether you love those or hate them. What it does do however is treat us to the most original, creative and enjoyable origin story since a billionaire escaped from a terrorist bunker in 2008. Perhaps the most overlooked success of Doctor Strange is how it captures both types of the audience at the same time. If you’re an MCU nut like myself, eager for the subtle references, laugh out loud humour and connections to the the bigger picture you’ll be happy. It may boast the least amount of external name drops on first inspection but there’s enough there to feel organic and still part of a bigger story. If however you want something new, an original superhero story that doesn’t rely on the same mechanics, gimmicks and style, you’re going to adore this.

The endless journey of uniqueness will undoubtly pursue in the world, it is an inevitably you won’t need alternate dimensions to determine. In the midst of this however, you can rest easy knowing that even after fourteen movies, Marvel know how to given us a truly unqiue comic book movie.

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