One of the more interesting superheroes to come out of Marvel Comics’ incredible burst or creativity during the 1960s was Doctor Strange. First appearing in Strange Tales #110, he was the brainchild of idiosyncratic artist Steve Ditko and was inspired by stories of black magic and the radio adventure serial Chandu the Magician. The comic book introduced the concept of mysticism into the Marvel Universe and, with its surrealistic imagery, anticipated the psychedelic counterculture of the latter part of the decade.
Doctor Strange (2016) is the 14th film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and continues the company’s successful formula that has repeatedly made them box office darlings. Let’s face it, with a Marvel movie you know exactly what you’re going to get and audiences take comfort in that, especially during these uncertain times. While this movie does not divert from their tried and true formula (if it ain’t broke…), they are finding new ways to present it through inspired casting and impressive-looking visuals.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an arrogant and brilliant neurosurgeon whose life changes radically when he gets into a car accident that damages his hands, rendering him unable to perform surgeries. Benedict Cumberbatch is superb in these early scenes as an egomaniac doctor reminiscent of Hugh Laurie’s conceited medical profession on the popular television program House M.D. He’s not above humiliating a colleague (Michael Stuhlbarg) he feels is beneath him while charming an attractive surgeon (Rachel McAdams) and is very selective in the cases he takes on. Cumberbatch nails the cool and aloof nature of Strange and is not afraid to portray him initially as a conceited prick.
Devastated, Strange travels to Nepal after meeting with a paraplegic man (Benjamin Bratt) that was mysteriously healed at a place known as Kamar-Taj. He meets the enigmatic Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who, in turn, introduces him to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). She opens his eyes to a whole new world or, rather, worlds and dimensions while also altering the way he sees things, like being able to exist on the astral plane. The guided tour through the multiverse is a wonderfully trippy sequence that fuses the philosophical mumbo jumbo of The Matrix (1999) with the hallucinogenic imagery of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Strange is also schooled in the ways of the mystic arts that playfully blends aspects of the Harry Potter movies (especially objects that have a life of their own) with period martial arts movies from the 1970s. Not surprisingly, the brilliant man is a quick learner, taking the initiative and figuring out how to astral project before he’s taught how to do so.
Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former pupil of the Ancient One, and now a renegade sorcerer, has stolen pages from one of her sacred tomes, which allows him to manipulate time. He wants to draw power from the Dark Dimension and acquire eternal life by summoning the powerful Dormammu. Naturally, a reluctant Strange is enlisted to stop Kaecilius and save the world.
The most engaging Marvel movies feature inspired casting choices and, in this respect, Doctor Strange excels with the casting of Cumberbatch as Strange. He gets the self-importance of the character while also displaying fantastic comic timing with the humorous observations that are sprinkled lightly throughout the movie. With her otherworldly presence, Tilda Swinton is ideally cast as the benevolent Ancient One, an immortal being that protects the world from other dimensions but might not be as benign as she appears to be. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings a quiet dignity to Mordo whose ideology clashes with Strange’s own only for it to change when he discovers something about the Ancient One late in the movie.
Doctor Strange is the first Marvel movie to use 3D effectively as evident in an eye-popping sequence where Kaecilius and his followers chase Strange and Mordo through the streets of New York City, bending and manipulating matter so that buildings split apart and fold in on themselves, taking a similar scene in Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) to a whole other level of complexity and scale. Furthermore, in a nice touch, when Strange enters the Dark Dimension to have it out with Dormammu, the filmmakers bring Ditko’s mind-altering artwork vividly to life. Along with Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Doctor Strange is the most visually rich Marvel movie to date with a distinctive look that differentiates it from the others.
It may be odd to say and not really stretch if you think about it, but Doctor Strange is also the most intellectual effort in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – albeit in a superficial, popcorn movie kind of way, if that makes any sense. There are several scenes that involve characters arguing or expounding large chunks of dialogue about notions of time and space and the dangers of manipulating them. While the movie features the requisite battles between super-powered beings, it attempts to make them different visually from other Marvel fare. To this end, Strange fights one of Kaecilius’ followers on the astral plane while Rachel McAdams’ doctor tries to revive his physical body. I also like that the climactic battle circumvents the traditional slugfest by having our hero outwit the villain with his intellect. There’s a lot to like about Doctor Strange and I am curious to see where they go with this character.