One really has to tip their hat to the ability displayed by Marvel Studios to develop their esoteric, little-known or less regarded properties into massive blockbusters. I mean, it’s one thing to make a successful Captain America or Incredible Hulk movie. Those characters have entered the popular collective zeitgeist and have been notorious for several decades. But making movies starring a guy many considered a Batman-clone, a literal god or a cast of little-know C/D characters? Whatever one can say about the two Thor movies or the Iron Man sequels, those suckers made money. Lots and lots of money. Marvel has done a good job of making sure their characters get the best chance to find an audience.
Even so, tackling Doctor Stephen Strange’s tale had to feel like a tall order. Created by Steve Ditko in 1963, Doctor Strange is, even more than most characters, a vision of his time. Looking to touch on themes of magic and mysticism, Doctor Strange allowed Marvel’s writers to bring together ideas on everything from Eastern philosophies, ancient mythologies, classical magic and alternate dimensions. It found a small but devoted following in college students, beatniks and people into psychedelia — preceding the movements that would sweep throughout America by a few years. That said, it is all from a 1960s perspective, which, as Marvel found out when adapting The Mandarin for Iron Man 3, does not quite translate so easily to today’s audiences. Still, I spoil nothing to say that they found a way to bring this esoteric character and his world to life. In 3D!
We follow super-talented/super-jerk neurosurgeon Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) as he shows off for his colleagues like Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and Dr. Nicodemus West (Michael Stuhlbarg). He’s a genius. He’s a rock star. And he knows it. He lives fast, expensive and is all about taking care of number one. But like in the comics, it all ends with a horrific accident that leaves him with major nerve damage to his hands — steady hands being kind of a big deal for anyone doing surgery in a patient’s brain. Despondent and desperate to regain back his old life, he exhausts all his resources until he’s on his last chance. Hearing of a healer out in the far reaches of Nepal, Strange travels out there to try and find Kamar-Taj, where he might have his faculties restored. It is there that he finds the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), the Sorcerer Supreme of Earth and her students — among them Wong (Benedict Wong) and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). They will try to assist Strange in finding his way back to health while revealing a world of magic and danger to the man of science. All of this while the Ancient One’s forces are accosted by her former pupil, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who seeks to bring a force of evil onto our world.
That paragraph seems to hold a lot of plot but it isn’t. For the most part, the movie handles the journey of Stephen Strange along the same rail lines that led Tony Stark from billionaire playboy to Iron Man. A lot of this movie, in fact, feels similar to the first Iron Man. Rich and talented jerk is brought low and forced to come to grips with who he is and challenged to change in new ways that lead him to become a hero. That’s a fair criticism of this movie and of Marvel’s formula. In that, however, Marvel Studios is hemmed in by the work laid by Lee, Ditko, Kirby, etc. They’re not reinventing the wheel because to do so would change who the character is. All they can do is adapt it for modern audiences and trust that they capture the essence of the character.
I will say that director Scott Derrickson is an inspired choice to helm this adaptation. A man who’s made his bones making horror movies like Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose seems rather well suited for adapting a comic book steeped in lore and mysticism. He manages to give people just enough of the magical mumbo-jumbo without trying to cram 50 years of back story into the movie. Working with writing partner C. Robert Cargill and with Jon Spaihts, Derrickson gets at the heart of who Strange was and who he will become. They work to give us Strange’s backstory but not be held by it. In that Derrickson is helped by Cumberbatch’s performance.
By now, everyone has had a chance to get to know all about Benedict Cumberbatch. The erstwhile star of BBC’s Sherlock and an Academy Award nominee for The Imitation Game among many other roles, Cumberbatch was going to break through at some point and it feels like his time is at hand. Is Stephen Strange a jerk? Yes. But it’s interesting that I never felt him becoming the epic asshole that Downey made Tony Stark. That’s down to Cumberbatch’s charm and skill. The accident that sends him on his path is his fault, but the movie doesn’t make it out to be some sort of deserved comeuppance like Stark’s injury/imprisonment. He’s a selfish jerk, but one who has channeled that selfishness towards good. His fall is one that anyone can empathize with and his quest to regain his old life is all too common. Cumberbatch also manages to show us Strange’s inquisitiveness and sense of humor. He looks at the world like geniuses do: a playground in which to express themselves. If there’s going to be any challenge to him, it’s going to be learning too much too fast and getting in over his head. But the movie makes sure we see that Strange is an intelligent man who is willing to learn. And that becomes crucial when he’s gotta face Kaecilius.
Of the rest of the cast, the three key supporting roles are Swinton’s Ancient One, Ejiofor’s Mordo and McAdams’ Christine. Let’s tackle them in reverse. McAdams isn’t called to do much but she does the role of colleague/former flame/support structure well. I do wonder if there’s more in store for her in a potential sequel. Ejiofor is rather reserved as Mordo. This is understandable as his character is one of a man who’s trying to hold both his immense power and darker nature at bay. He goes from Strange’s senior figure to partner in the course of the film. If Strange is Lennon, Mordo is McCartney. The Ancient One recognizes that they need one another to work best. As for Swinton and the Ancient One…look….Much and more can be written about the issues of casting white actors in Asian roles. Here I’ll say that Swinton does well playing a character that’s meant to be aloof, all-knowing and powerful. The idea that she’s an old Celt witch is a nice way of avoiding some of the more sensitive issues that Dr. Strange’s backstory has. Swinton can do otherwordly in her sleep and she manages to be an excellent tutor for the world of magic and mysticism Stephen finds himself in.
You’ll notice I didn’t say anything about Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius or the forces that follow him on his quest. That’s because, if I’m honest, they are secondary in nature to the internal struggle that Strange is maneuvering through. Oh, they matter, but in a way that’s ancillary: they’re a foe for our hero to oppose in the third act. Mikkelsen is up for the task but his role is minor and, were it done by a lesser actor, I don’t know that it would matter much. He’s the Anakin Skywalker to the Ancient One’s Yoda — the star pupil who’s fallen to the Dark Side. But beyond that, who Kaecilius is remains untouched. How certain is he of his quest? Is it motivated by seduction from more powerful entities or it it a rejection of finding out ugly truths from the Ancient One? Any question regarding his character is kinda sorta answered but not dwelled upon. Some might say a wasted opportunity.
If there’s any star as big as Cumberbatch in this movie, though, it is the set pieces which Derrickson, cinematographer Ben Davis and editors Sabrina Plisco and Wyatt Smith craft. Even for a company that’s known for epic battles and unique visuals, the stuff in Doctor Strange is unique. Working with Industrial Light & Magic, they bend and twist the reality around Strange, his friends and his foes so that it looks like stepping into kaleidoscopes or battling in M.C. Escher paintings. Whether it’s feuding in the Mirror dimension and squaring the number of New York Cities or opening portals to different locales around the globe, it is all visual eye candy. A tip of the hat also to production designer Charles Wood, set decorators John Bush and Lauri Gaffin and art director Ray Chan and Co. who make sure that Strange is never away from the real world. Whether it’s a basketball court in New York, a London street, a temple in Katmandu or busy street in Hong Kong that’s been frozen in time, it’s all crafted beautifully. Here let me be the millionth person to say that anyone looking to see this movie, should do so in 3D. It is worth the price of admission.
I’ll also add a tiny spoiler here: the movie does a good job of not rushing Strange’s character too fast. There might have been an interest in having the movie end with Stephen established as the Sorcerer Supreme, but they resist it. While it obviously creates plot going forward — and the movie, like many other Marvel movies, does its job of setting up future properties — it is good that they allowed the story and characters to breathe. I don’t know how long Cumberbatch’s contract with Marvel is for, but they should look to at least leave as much of a mark as the Captain America movies have in the MCU before he departs. There’s a lot of untapped material that they can touch upon and that no one — not the other parts of Marvel or DC has brought to the forefront yet.
I enjoyed the hell out of Doctor Strange. It is fun and funny. It brings in this other piece to the Marvel Cinematic Universe that we didn’t know was lacking. Just as Guardians of the Galaxy opened the MCU to intergalactic adventures, so does Doctor Strange open it to mystical and magical realms — everything from characters like Ghost Rider and Morbius to places like the Dream dimension. The movie leaves it clear that Strange will take part in the larger MCU but what other adventures will the good doctor engage in after here is a good question. Whatever they are, you can bet that people will be more than willing to give them a try.
Like I said, Marvel knows how to make good comic book movies.