Of all the characters in the Marvel Universe, Doctor Strange was not in the first line of superheroes to get their own movie franchise. But here we are, deep into the bench, and a nice mix of striking visuals, engaging actors, and strands of spirituality has created this fall’s big comic book movie.
It all starts with the cast. Benedict Cumberbatch steps in and owns the role of Doctor Strange. He drops his British affect for that of a New Yorker, but the cynical humor he evinces in Sherlock comes through here as well. From the cocky surgeon on top of the world to a broken man seeking a healing he can’t possibly imagine, he embodies the journey of a man destined for great things. Strangely, we never really see him hit rock bottom, or if we do, his hubris bounces him right back up again.
The figures most responsible for shepherding Strange on his way to becoming a hero are the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her novitiate Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Swinton is a force of nature, and while she keeps her acting superpowers under control, she displays the gravitas of her role from Orlando with the subtle humor of her characters in work by Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers. While Ejiofor is without a doubt a superb actor, his talents are not fully utilized in this role of the faithful second. Maybe future iterations of this character will be fleshed out.
The other most striking thing about Doctor Strange is its use of Inception-style special effects, and there’s no doubting the link between the two films. Here we see the bending of streets, buildings, and even entire cities put to work for the good business of fighting the bad guys instead of showing off in a dream. Seen in 3D on an IMAX screen the effect is impressive, regardless of its necessity to the plot. This eye candy, combined with the hand-wavy way the characters cast spells and do battle, makes for an delicious visual feast.
The most underplayed aspect of the film is its exploration of mysticism and spirituality. Having the main character trek to Kathmandu for enlightenment and a cure for his ills is certainly trite, but director Scott Derrickson resists turning this encounter into something the TV show Kung Fu. Instead, the audience gets action (and an accelerated learning curve for Strange) right from the beginning. Ideas of selfishness, service, and sublimation of the ego are examined throughout, but they take a back, back seat to fast-paced action and snarky dialogue.
The villains in Doctor Strange are a mixed bag. The ultimate bad guy is an amorphous world eater named Dormammu that thankfully occupies very little screen time. The more immediate threat comes from fallen spirit warrior Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his crew of baddies (including Scott Adkins). Mikkelsen plays a serviceable zealot, and the kicking, punching, and stabbing keep the action moving forward.
By the end of the film, the franchise is secure and Strange appears to have accepted his new role without losing his inner smart mouth. All of the pieces tying it into the larger Marvel Universe are present (include two post-credit teasers), so on we go into a continuing narrative that fewer and fewer people care anything about. But for two hours, they don’t have to, and Doctor Strange gives enough bang for the buck to make it worth a watch.
Doctor Strange opens in the U.S. on November 4, 2016.