The fourteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange brings about another classic character to the screen, that defies the laws of reality and provides something relatively unique for a big budget blockbuster.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a neurosurgeon at the top of his field that loses the ability to use his hands after a fatal crash, undertakes a journey that brings him to Nepal and under the tutelage of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), as he is trained in the art of mysticism and learns to create new possibilities for himself as a sorcerer. While exploring the power of magic and entering new worlds and dimensions, Strange’s prodigious learning ability leads to him having to deal with the forces of evil, namely a former disciple gone rogue named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who wants to use dark energy to plunge all of reality into utter chaos.
For starters, it seems like filmmaker Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver Us from Evil) has turned in a fairly exciting comic book movie with some real originality in its formula. An inspired choice for a director, as his oeuvre is mainly within the realm of horror, it could be argued that Derrickson’s ideas are not as prominent as the decisions already made by the powers that be at Marvel Studios, but that’s ok because Doctor Strange still results in being one of the most vibrant films to come from this franchise in several years.
As the titular doctor Stephen Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch does an admirable job, even with a somewhat distracting American accent employed throughout. His character is similar to Tony Stark/Iron Man in many ways – a rich, arrogant genius who experiences a violent accident, and discovers a new potential within himself that leads to a new world of possibilities to undertake. If Robert Downey Jr. ever decides to take a break from superheroes, its very much possible that Cumberbatch will become the new defacto central character of the MCU, something that could be very likely considering the bevvy of intergalactic stories waiting to be adapted as the MCU moves outward to more cosmic territory. Nevertheless, Cumberbatch is a fine addition to this series and I would enjoy seeing him brushing up against the likes of other characters in future films.
Despite the controversy surrounding her role, Tilda Swinton is equally as pleasing as The Ancient One, really getting into the material and proving her versatility as one of the greatest actresses currently living. Elsewhere, Strange is contrasted with another follower, Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Eijofor), who turns in a good job (and it is also interesting to see him reunite with Cumberbatch after sharing the screen in 12 Years a Slave). It appears Eijofor will have more work to do in future installments, as his character is one from the comics with a rich backstory worth exploring to the fullest detail.
It’s a disappointment to have the central villain of the film, Kaecilius, result in being largely forgettable, given that he’s played by the otherwise fantastic Mads Mikkelsen. Appearing in a lengthy intro scene before disappearing for most of the first and second acts, and finally returning for a series of climactic action scenes, Mikkelsen does his best with the material, but given the fairly robust ensemble at hand, it’s a shame that he had to be the weak link. Rachel McAdams is also unfairly put aside for most of the film’s duration as Strange’s co-worker and one-time lover Christine. Her role is mainly that of the human connection that Strange still holds onto after his mind and spirit are elevated by his teachings, though her character severely lacks dimension and in the end, doesn’t amount to much.
The visuals on display in Doctor Strange are incredible, and make it worth seeing in 3D (or even IMAX 3D) if the option is available to you. An sequence midway through the film in which Strange is taken on a journey through time and space in a matter of moments is one of the most eye-popping and dazzling sequences in a mainstream film in quite some time, and fully channels the sensibilities of the comic art created by Steve Ditko. Just as well, the heavily promoted sequences depicting downtown New York being rotated, flipped, and bent out of sync, like Inception by way of M.C. Escher, are just as stunning, and make for an insanely detailed setpiece. Such feats would have been considered a major risk for Marvel Studios a mere few years ago when they were known for more conventional, safe superheroes, though following the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, it becomes clear that the doors have been opened wide for more out-there stories and characters to come about.
While the narrative can be too familiar at times, charting the usual beats of other hero origin stories, there are still many instances of creativity and inventiveness on display in the film’s mise-en-scene. Ultimately, Doctor Strange is one of the MCU’s most noteworthy films to date, and should be a major entry in the super-franchise as it charts a course for more cosmic and mystical territory with its upcoming titles.