|'As with too many new installments of universe-building franchises, this is ultimately all set-up'.|
Despite the fact that it now feels like we're never too far from another installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe being released, since the conclusion of Phase 1 the studio has in fact been rather cautious when it comes to giving new characters standalone films as their introduction. Phase 2 consisted of twice as many sequels as it did first outings, and Doctor Strange is currently the only entry scheduled for Phase 3 to establish a new character who hasn't been seen before (assuming that Captain Marvel will make an appearance in 2018's Avengers: Infinity War before receiving her own film the following year).
Additionally, Marvel's choices for characters who do receive their own introductory features arguably veer away from the 'safe' end of the studio's roster. Both Guardians Of The Galaxy and Ant-Man focused upon less well-known characters, suggesting a level of courage in the decisions of those signing the cheques at Disney to get these films made.
Doctor Strange continues this trend, the most successful elements of Scott Derrickson's adaptation coming from the director embracing all that is different within the script to what has been seen in the MCU before. There's a sequence towards the end of the first act where the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) reveals the astral plane to Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) which is one of the most psychedelic and unsettling you're likely to have seen in a mainstream blockbuster, let alone a Marvel movie, for quite some time. It's at moments like these that Derrickson's film is at its best, even if some of the visuals come off a little too 'Inception lite' in their execution.
Elsewhere, however, Doctor Strange is disappointingly symptomatic of the regular criticisms of Marvel's output. Foremost amongst the film's problems is that, as with too many new installments of universe-building franchises, this is ultimately all set-up. After including just a single throwaway reference to the Avenguers for the majority of the running time, Derrickson overloads the end of his film - including both the mid- and post-credits scenes - with explicit connections to at least two (more likely three) future MCU installments. It worked in early releases such as Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger when the initial building blocks were still being laid; but now we're at the start of Phase 3 it feels decidedly cheap, especially after the Russo Brothers handled things far more adeptly in Civil War.
Opposite Mads Mikkelson's generic baddie Kaecilius and his anonymous sidekicks, and alongside the drought of humour from both The Ancient One and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) after a few well-placed witticisms early on, it's down to Cumberbatch to ably hold matters together. Strange is arguably more of an arrogant bastard than even Tony Stark (it'll be interesting to see how that works when they inevitably share screen time), but Cumberbatch's natural talent consistently shines through, the actor slotting effortlessly into the franchise's ever-growing ensemble of superheroes by the final act. Let's just hope future directors leave Strange's dull relationship with fellow neurosurgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) on the cutting room floor in favour of the chemistry he has with his Cloak of Levitation, a garment which emerges as an unexpectedly charming spiritual successor to the Magic Carpet from Disney's Aladdin.