Marvel Studios’ recent cinematic endeavour, Doctor Strange feels like a beginner’s course in surrealism. It holds the audience’s hand so tightly that to let go would mean instantaneous disengagement. As a result, most of the psychedelic scenes lack potency and the sheer lingering nature that is associated with the style. Even the film’s arguably most trippy scene, which is an introduction to the Mystic world for the main character Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) feels tame. He is shown remarkable sights as he is sped through space and time in a manner similar to the Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The sequence is engulfed with muted blues and purples, which intrinsically makes the scene feel bland and generic as that is the same visual scheme that was used for the infinity stone finale in Guardians of the Galaxy. Moreover, the queerest image in the sequence is when Strange looks down on his hand, and another set of hands start to grow. The moment is a microcosm for the film’s safe surrealism that on the one hand feels organic insofar as representing Strange’s overarching desire. However, it ultimately lacks an inherent atmospheric edge that makes the audiences process the perceived imagery. No frame or shot within the picture demands to be grappled with or solved as to what it is supposed to be.
Moreover, the movie has a pristine and sterile look, which while apropos for the myriad number of hospital sequences proves to be toxic for the surreal sequences, which is accentuated with the muted colour palette. One feels that they are watching the entire film through a transparent glass window of a penthouse, where the view is cloudy and grey. Visually, the film fundamentally is missing the richness, texture, colour and detail of Steve Ditko’s comic book artwork. Famed comic publisher, editor and designer, Dean Mullaney made the following observation of Ditko’s style. “In Dr Strange, he added the influence of Salvador Dali’s works and created something never previously seen in comics. He took the ethereal and made it tangible.”
Nevertheless, Doctor Strange has some fascinating virtues. One of them is whenever the picture is slyly subverting its comic book mythos. Many small moments illustrate this aspect. For example, when Strange first enters the domain of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) in Kathmandu, he greets a male master as though he is the venerated teacher. However, the real master of the mystic arts welcomes him, and in turn, she dismisses the mediating teacher. As the seemingly immortal Ancient One, Swinton plays the part as though she is a child who has been imbued with monumental power. Despite her advanced age, she never seems burdened by the responsibility and in many instances, there is still a sense of youthful relish in her actions which is coupled with a matter of fact optimism and commendable calm acceptance.
The most emblematic example of this quality comes in the aftermath of Strange’s first battle with three sorcerers. The conflict culminated in him having to kill one of the men who was attacking him. Strange bemoans this action by stating that he has taken an oath and consequently he will not kill anyone in the future. The moment represents a subversion of the character’s stance in the comics, which was a pledge to the Ancient One as opposed to his medical profession. Screenwriters, Scott Derrickson and C.Robert Cargill, have taken an aspect of Strange from the comics and have used it as a clever means to illustrate that the character is still in conflict as he refuses to let go of his past, which includes his status as a Doctor. Moreover, the moment illustrates the irrevocably morally grey nature of the role he will undergo should he choose to commit and become a fully fledged sorcerer.
Finally, Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as the titular character is excellent. While conceptually, it could be argued that Cumberbatch is conveying the same qualities and emotions that he imbues Sherlock with, such as a cold, aloof and sardonic sense of humour. He does add some other shades to his usual manner of playing characters, which is in the form of a captivating weariness and vulnerability. Cumberbatch’s conveys this with his physical acting as he portrays the precise strain in his hands after an accident that renders them unusable. Additionally, Cumberbatch through his facial expressions conveys the sheer anguish and toil that Strange undergoes throughout the film. The performance is accentuated by director Scott Derrickson’s use of close-ups as we see Strange at various times through the course of the movie- bruised, damaged and broken.
The choice illustrates the picture’s fundamental dichotomy. It understands and encapsulates the appeal of its comic book sourced character and world through commendable writing, despite in the same breath not embracing the exuberant and imaginative artwork of its early source material.