Doctor Strange works incredibly hard to weave its spell over its audience, dazzling their senses with unparalleled visuals and a spectacular score to match. The film from director Scott Derrickson goes out of its way to make the most out of Marvel’s winning formula for cinematic gold. It strikes riches beyond visual compare. Doctor Strange may exhaust everything Marvel has to offer in its “origin story” formula. While it rides that formula to the finish line, it strives hard to brings more to the standard than usual and succeeds in its effects and wonder. It is not a perfect beast, however. It suffers a few tropes from Marvel’s often struggle to make its villain compelling and complex to its protagonist arc that is far too familiar. Iron Man with magic, perhaps. Yet, Benedict Cumberbatch embodies Dr. Stephen Strange so perfectly the character leaps out of the comic onto the screen but not without a surprise or two in store. Doctor Strange is a rare super hero treat that deserves to be seen in IMAX 3D above all others. The other worlds and mind-bending spectacle are worth the price alone. Marvel has written its book on how-to create a super hero movie. You did it, Marvel. Now, let’s see if the powerhouse can begin to take chances with its future films.
The script from director Scott Derrickson, along with co-writers John Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill, follows an arrogant, egotistical but incredibly successful doctor named Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Success comes at a price and, when Strange drops his attention just long enough to destroy his hands in a horrifying car accident, the vain doctor finds his world coming to a crushing end. His hands are no longer steady and useful. A cure evades his grasp. He finds himself looking to the East for clues to finding alternative methods to recovery. Instead he finds himself involved with the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), the Mystic Arts, and a universe of alternate dimensions. A quick study, Doctor Strange over comes his narcissistic nature to don the Eye of Agamoto and the Cloak of Levitation in order to help Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong) defeat Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) from unleashing evil forces from the Dark Dimension onto the Earthly plane.
To make a “Doctor Strange” movie, one must cast the perfect Stephen Strange. With Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role, Marvel has done just that. Cumberbatch is Dr. Stephen Strange, providing the role with a confident swagger and ego, a strong sense of curiosity and thirst for knowledge, and an infectious whimsy in both dialog and physicality. He is the straight man and the comedian rolled into one. He brings Strange that needed suave and intelligence to convince the audience he can both win over his comrades and disarm his enemies as well as dive into the Mystic Arts to reach heights quickly among his peers. He also needs to be quite physical. Not only in running – lots of running – and fighting but also in reacting the magic surrounding him, especially when it comes to interacting with the Cloak of Levitation. It is almost as if Benedict Cumberbatch was born to play this role.
Yet, no matter how well Marvel captures its lead, it must also capture the visual expanse from its source material. In the Sixties, artist Steve Ditko fashioned a myriad of psychedelic worlds for Doctor Strange to travel through month after month. Decades of artists followed Ditko to fashion an expectation that the film must live up to. Somehow, beyond expectation, the wizards behind the stunning visuals excelled in ripping those images straight out of the four-color pages. Stunning. Amazing. Jaw-dropping. These adjectives only come close to expressing how wonderful, imaginative, and exhilarating the special effects achieved for this film are on screen. Every cent of the film’s $165 million dollar budget is splashed across the big screen like a breathing Dali painting on a three story living canvas. Each set piece one-ups the next, effortlessly. The film treats its audience to a dizzying trip through the multi-verse an Inception inspired world bending fight in the streets of New York and a battle in Hong Kong as time literals travels backwards. One fight, featuring Stephen Strange battling Lucian (Scott Adkins) in the astral plane as Doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) struggles to save Strange from a life-threatening wound, is nearly lifted panel by panel from a Doctor Strange graphic novel called The Oath.
One problem the film has is that the attention to the details of the lead, the effects and the set pieces seem to have left behind enough consideration for the film’s supporting cast and developing a thorough motivation for the villain Kaecilius. While Benedict Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor bring ample amounts of humor, talent and charisma to Wong and Mordo, neither character is given enough to accomplish outside their plot beats. Wong is little more than a joke about not laughing and Mordo serves the purpose to guide Strange once he lands at the Ancient One’s doorstep. Mads Mikkelsen fares the same with Kaecilius. It is almost entirely due to his steely magnetism that the character is interesting at all. Tilda Swinton gives the Ancient One the right amount of alien like qualities and time shifted sensibilities to make her character work despite the controversy surrounding the handling of adapting her character from Sixties comics to modern cinema. Marvel faces a no-win situation with the Ancient One. Regardless if the decision to cast the Asian male character as a white woman was the right one or not, Swinton handles the challenge with gusto and flair. Unfortunately, as good an actress as Rachel McAdams is, there is very little for her to do with the character Christine Palmer. Her character is there to serve the plot alone with little definition at all. A shame. The film suffers in comparison to other Marvel films in this respect.
Marvel rides its cinematic superhero formula to box office gold. Doctor Strange is an amazing film to behold, the effects are stunning and the film is fast paced despite its heavy – and extraordinary – exposition. In the end, the visuals win the day. Benedict Cumberbatch transforms himself into the Master of Mystic Arts, the Sorcerer Supreme. Now that the film has made its way into theaters, it is difficult to imagine any one else in the role of Dr. Stephen Strange, much like Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark post Iron Man. The script contains a variety of surprises and Easter Eggs to make comic books fans delirious with delight and the average movie fan curious about what it all means in a terrific way. It creatively ties the story into the main Marvel Cinematic Universe without being too heavy handed and gives the Cloak of Levitation an unexpected breath of originality. The film is thrilling, funny and astounding and is one of Marvel’s best films. It does suffer similar issues as other Marvel films, especially when it comes to the supporting cast and villain. The score from Michael Giacchino is a pleasant and welcome surprise giving the film a unique audible identity different than other Marvel films. Director Scott Derrickson handles the variety of material and almost unimaginable special effects with great success proving a great addition to the Marvel stable of gifted and talented directors. Bring on more Doctor Strange, please.
Doctor Strange (4.5 / 5)