MCU #14 - A Useful Lesson in Storytelling

Scott Derrickson
Director / Writer

C. Robert Cargill

Movie Review
DOCTOR STRANGE: A Great Film Marred by Questionable Casting



Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Screenplay by: Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill


When one of Hollywood’s most successful film franchises becomes an exhausting combination of rote storytelling, contrived punchlines and repetitive special effects, one begins to wonder whether the next film will be the one to ultimately wreck Stan Lee’s carefully placed domino tiles.

So of course, with Doctor Strange entering the box office as the 14th installment in the eternally expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, viewers and critics alike wondered whether the film would finally cool off this decade’s live action comic-book fever. In the past four years alone, origin stories have saturated the market, and the artless comic-to-film formula of: ‘good guy meets bad guy; bad guy tries to take over world; a city is almost obliterated by massive fight scene; good guy struts to victory amidst unnecessary explosions’, has resulted in a sense of genre fatigue amongst viewers. Fortunately, horror film director Scott Derrickson effortlessly sprints into the dangerously predictable territory that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and, with that, has successfully created an origin story that is not only different from the chewed-up MCU formula, but is also – for the most part – an entertaining watch.

Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a successful neurosurgeon with a colossal ego, is introduced through repetitive imagery of his hands and their significance in his profession. And so, when Strange meets with a near-fatal, jarringly realistic car accident that renders his hands useless, audiences that are unfamiliar with this origin story are left startled. Cumberbatch skillfully takes viewers on a gripping journey of emotions: from a rather unlikeable, narcissistic know-it-all to the empty shell of a man who desperately wants to heal, to the Western doctor who turns to Eastern mysticism, and eventually, the powerful sorcerer who faces a supervillain, this protagonist evolves onscreen with a natural ease that will instantly address any Tony Stark comparisons that spring to mind. Not only does Cumberbatch lack the Robert Downey Jr. version of forced wit and unappealing core, but his character is a refreshing take on most of the MCU’s stereotypical archetypes. Co-writers Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill have paced the film relatively shrewdly (though there are some conspicuously choppy bits in the second and third acts), and have successfully tapped into the Ant-Man/Guardians of the Galaxy niche of intriguing, more obscure Marvel heroes.

Rachel McAdams (Doctor Christine Palmer) is a breath of fresh air as the sane constant in Stephen Strange’s bizarre life, and her onscreen chemistry with Cumberbatch is convincingly natural. Cumberbatch himself is flawless – right from comic timing to action sequences and accent, he is the primary reason this film succeeds in bolstering the near-fatigued comic-moviegoer’s attention. Chiwetel Ejiofor (Karl Mordo) is a yawn-inducing bore with an infuriatingly inconsistent accent, although perhaps this can be attributed to the writers’ decision to abandon Mordo’s original comic-book portrayal. Benedict Wong is amusing and believable as the no-nonsense librarian, while the intense Mads Mikkelsen tries his best to shine in the villainous Kaecilius’ limited scope – another case of a great actor cast into a forgettable role. The talented Tilda Swinton successfully brings the Ancient One’s serene mysteriousness to life, but it still baffles the comic-book enthusiast as to why it was necessary to ‘whitewash’ this originally Tibetan character in the first place. It’s perfectly reasonable to swap genders where it renders a more interesting story, and no doubt a performer should be cast based on ability instead of race (case in point: Ejiofor as Mordo), but it can't be ignored that the MCU has a poor track record in terms of depriving Asian actors of major Hollywood roles (example: Iron Man 3’s ‘The Mandarin’). To make matters even worse, the subject is casually addressed in the movie by describing the Ancient One as ‘Celtic’ rather than Tibetan, thus stripping the mystic mentor of any Eastern origins and reconstructing an iconic character to suit Swinton’s appearance. One can only hope that the public backlash on this casting grievance (Sarah Finn, Reg Poerscout-Edgerton) will derail the MCU from walking the thin line of cultural appropriation in Hollywood.

Interestingly, it is here that Doctor Strange’s breathtaking CGI comes to the forefront, for viewers are left so distracted by the mind-boggling complexities of this film’s visual effects, that it is difficult to remain outraged with its tactless casting. With Guardians of the Galaxy’s Oscar-nominated Stephane Ceretti at its helm, this movie is the first in the MCU to fully exploit its substantial budget’s CGI possibilities. Aspects such as astral projection, time-and-space bending portals, macro-micro dimensions, and a teeming multiverse are addressed with a delicate suavity that makes these outlandish concepts seem delightfully grounded and real.

Costume design (Alexandra Byrne) and makeup (Donald McInne) are faithful to each character’s roots where the reference exists, and production design is stylistically accurate (Charles Wood). Cinematography successfully brings the urban landscapes of Hong Kong and New York City to gritty life (Ben Davis), while the crowded, colourful streets of Kathmandu are carefully illustrated with wide shots and intimate POV editing (Wyatt Smith, Sabrina Plisco). The film’s soundtrack plays well into the story’s Eastern inspirations (Michael Giacchino), and this is a welcome relief from the screenplay’s sometimes exposition-heavy approach – a fatal blemish that will no doubt irk the MCU’s considerable non-reader audience.

Sorcery-fuelled fight scenes are enthralling, while close combat action is bone-crunchingly satisfactory. It is here, however, that another curious casting flaw is revealed, this time in the form of Scott Adkins, who plays the role of Lucian: one of Kaecilius’ followers. With barely any screentime, viewers are expected to believe that this gifted warrior can be defeated with relative ease. It is utterly befuddling that Hollywood consistently hands Scott Adkins the same 10-second "bad guy's henchman" role, when this martial artist-turned-actor should in fact receive a leading role of his own within the MCU. Nevertheless, Adkins' breathtaking tornado-roundhouse kick will leave viewers mesmerized for the few seconds that it lasts.

Doctor Strange is the first in the Marvel Universe to boldly broaden its grasp on modern-day CGI technology, resulting in some jaw-dropping shots that not only question physical reality, but also the franchise’s digital 3D scope. Moreover, the film is a useful lesson for screenwriters who seek to better understand the ramifications of overzealous narration – ‘talking through scenes’ rather than ‘showing’ them – and of course, the convoluted concepts of effective pacing and restraint in storytelling.

While the film’s A-list cast has been its most attractive feature to fans across the globe, it is also its Achilles’ heel, and this is why it fails to compete with the likes of Civil War or Winter Soldier. Overall, Doctor Strange may not be Marvel’s best film so far, but it is, without a doubt, Marvel’s best-looking film since 2008. Should the fearsome trio of Derrickson, Cargill and Ceretti continue to see this series through to the end, there is a very real possibility that Doctor Stephen Strange could very well become the most intriguing live-action superhero within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.



   Tina Mohandas

Tina Mohandas is a songwriter, musician, tattoo artist, vintage motorcycle collector, and animal rights activist. Currently writing her debut science fantasy novel, she is also the co-founder of the non-profit Bikerhood India initiative, and hopes one day to free every caged animal in the world.

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