Enjoy the Trip; Film of the Week Doctor Strange Is Marvel's Most Psychedelic Movie Yet, with Terrific Performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor

The Evening Standard (London, England), October 28, 2016 | Go to article overview

Enjoy the Trip; Film of the Week Doctor Strange Is Marvel's Most Psychedelic Movie Yet, with Terrific Performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor


Byline: David Sexton

DOCTOR STRANGE 3D Cert 12A, 115 mins TO PROPERLY appreciate just how inventive and well cast this 14th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is you really do have to see the first attempt made at filming this story. A big ask, I know.

Doctor Strange began as a comic book back in 1963, created by Steve Ditko in association with Stan Lee, continuing to appear in Strange Tales and other Marvel worlds for more than 50 years.

In 1978, a Doctor Strange origins story was made as a pilot for a proposed TV series, directed by Philip DeGuere, with Stan Lee serving as a consultant on the production. Although it was not picked up by CBS and has been little seen since, it has, by marvellous coincidence, just been released for the first time ever on DVD by rival studio Universal.

It is quite hilariously dreadful, almost a match for the classic spoof, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace by Richard Ayoade and Matthew Holness.

A wicked witch from Hell called Morgan le Fay comes to Earth, taking over the body of an innocent but big-haired girl called Clea, to kill the ageing "Sorcerer Supreme", who is none other than our very own Sir John Mills, mostly in a Noel Coward-type dressing gown.

Luckily, Seventies dude psychiatrist with previously unrecognised mystic powers of his own, Dr Strange (played by Peter Hooten, in later life the partner of the poet James Merrill), saves Clea and Sir John by entering the "astral plane", which basically looks as though it was filmed inside a kaleidoscope from a pound shop, to confront the demon Balzaroth, certainly very red-eyed but otherwise unrewardingly indistinct.

And so this 1978 film ends with Dr Strange reluctantly taking on the role of Sorcerer Supreme himself, while Morgan le Fay returns to Earth as a selfhelp guru, glimpsed on TV, a promisingly sinister touch, yet still not enough to get a sequel made.

Now, 38 years on, here comes Doctor Strange's origins story once more. And, as if to show how much things have changed, it opens with a demonstration of just what special effects are available now, a scene of world-bending supernatural combat that makes the way cityscapes twist and meld in The Matrix or Inception look just a little old hat.

Then we meet Stephen Strange himself, rightly returned to being a proper doc, a wizard neurosurgeon rather than a quack psychiatrist, in a convincingly hi-tech hospital too. Apparently, in the long development process, Jared Leto, Ethan Hawke, Oscar Isaac, Ewan McGregor, Matthew McConaughey, Jake Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, Keanu Reeves and Ryan Gosling were all considered for the role (Marvel/Disney's producer Kevin Feige must have felt confident of being able to offer a decent bung to whomever, don't you think?). But in the end they got it right. Benedict Cumberbatch is our perfect Doctor Strange. In an interview on set, Cumberbatch insisted this wasn't going to be another Sherlock, even if both characters were similarly intelligent. "Stephen Strange is a lover, he's a materialist, he's arrogant, but he's got a great sense of humour. There are smatterings of the same colours Sherlock has but he's not on the spectrum."

He doesn't need to be, since he's such a cocksure dick instead, at the start at least. We see him successfully performing brain surgery "freehand" (don't try this at home) just to show his colleagues that he can and then obnoxiously explaining to his lovely admirer, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), that he's sticking to the "Strange policy" of not sleeping with colleagues.

Next we see him prancing about in his palatial, glass-walled flat, adorned with awards, choosing from his collection of trophy watches, before setting off, in black tie, to deliver another triumphant speech about his amazing achievements, in his spiffy Lamborghini, overtaking everything in his way, in the dark, on a twisty mountain road. …

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