Few fans of the Marvel cinematic universe know about Doctor Strange. The character doesn’t have the recognition factor that Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America do. With the new release of DOCTOR STRANGE, all that will change. Fan favorite SHERLOCK’s Benedict Cumberbatch is the star, aided by co-starring British acting greats like 12 YEARS A SLAVE’s Chiwetel Ejiofor, Indie film queen Tilda Swinton, and MARCO POLO’s Benedict Wong. When you add Danish national treasure Mads Mikkelsen, it’s like the studio was throwing the thespian kitchen sink at it. I’d describe the film as INCEPTION with sorcery and hot Oscar-nominated British actors. Does the film achieve its aim at making Stephen Strange a household name, in anticipation of his appearances in future chapters in the massive single Marvel story?
Egotistical superstar surgeon Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) doesn’t take any cases that aren’t going to get him more fame and financial gain. He’s so self absorbed he barely has time for his fellow surgeon, friend and ex-lover Christine (Rachel McAdams). Then on his way to a fundraiser in his exotic sports car he takes his eyes off the wheel just long enough to cause an accident that leaves him barely alive, and his nerves severely damaged. After he depletes his bank account searching the world for doctors who can make his ruined hands work again, he resorts to going East for answers. There he learns sorcery, and a world of magic beyond imagining, from The Ancient One (Swinton) and with the help of mystics Mordo (Ejiofor) and Wong (Wong). Together they must keep the world from destruction by evil sorcerer Kaecilius (Mikkelsen) whilst navigated alternate, shifting realities and the blending of the real and magical realms.
If all that sounds silly, it is, and yet, it works. Best not to look too deeply at the story, which involves a heaping helping of artifacts that glow and do something important, a bad guy thick on glamrock eyeshadow but thin on motivation, and a female co-star that has no discernible backstory. What they skimped on there, they make up for with a spectacular visual aesthetic, a strong arc for the central character, a blessedly short climactic fight scene, and just the right amount of humor. Instead of Iron Man, here you get Magic Man. He even has a sidekick of sorts, but to reveal who it is would be a spoiler. Psychedelic in the extreme, DOCTOR STRANGE isn’t afraid to get all mystical and metaphysical on its viewers. As such, it should have a stronger pull for female fans, and create an even larger collection of loyal viewers as the character continues to show up as part of the Marvel universe.
Cumberbatch ably fills the cape, and the co-stars, to a lesser or greater degree, help build a world viewers will find fascinating enough to want to return to again and again. He has the jaded bitterness and egoism of Tony Stark and the determination of Steve Rogers. He’s also a man who is searching for himself, for meaning, and someone who increasingly accepts the mystical as part of the fabric of the universe. Even with other aspects of the film lacking explanation, he is compelling enough to become invested in the plot, such as it is, but even more, the transformation of the lead character. The Ancient One as played by Swinton is believable and complicated. I’m not sure I buy into director Scott Derrickson’s concerns about dragon lady caricatures as the reason they didn’t hire an Asian actress to play the role. Although some aspects of the plot do give validity to his argument, I’d say they should have just dealt with the backlash, pointing to the acting prowess of Tilda Swinton, or hired one of the many famous actresses currently in Asian films. Either way, Swinton is great. Mikkelsen and McAdams are the ones that get the shaft in terms of character motivation or development, but McAdams does her part in telling Strange’s story, and Mikkelson makes for a gorgeous, entertaining villain.
The scenery and set pieces in DOCTOR STRANGE are less about battles and more about chases through trippy environments. To see it in IMAX is an affirmation of why the technology was invented, is fantastical, and well worth the price. Buildings fold in on themselves, cars drive off perpendicular streets, and people fall through the sky but land sideways. We get to go out beyond space into mind bending geometry. Translating ideas presented in the film from screenplay to the screen is a feat that can’t be praised enough. It’s great fun to see where the filmmakers take Strange, and by extension, the audience, on his journey beyond our reality into magic.
DOCTOR STRANGE has already conjured up over 100 million in international sales as it enters theaters and rings up sales at the domestic box office. As autumn fun at the cinema goes, Cumberbatch and crew have more than enough wizardry to weave a spell on US audiences.