If you have seen the trailers for Doctor Strange, Marvel's latest entry in the ever-expanding superhero universe, then you have, quite rightfully, worried yourself into a superheroic stupor.
Worry not, dear ones. There are cinematic places in these universes toward which your mind has yet to even begin to imagine.
Doctor Strange begins, and I stress begins, to capture the vastness of these universes in a way seldom realized with any success at all on the big screen. Are the exceptions? Of course, there are always exceptions. For the most part, those films that have attempted to explore such multiversal vastness have been struck down by the limits of their ego and, yes, the inability of their creators to surrender to the limitlessness.
It is much to his credit that director Scott Derrickson (Deliver Us From Evil) seemingly surrenders to the trippier and hippier fringes of the Marvel universe, a universe created in 1963 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, and a universe that adds a true sense of otherworldness to Marvel's already strange and wonderful world.
Into it all is thrust Benedict Cumberbatch as Strange, a casting decision that left some perplexed and others overjoyed yet a casting decision that reaps tremendous rewards as Strange has always been one of Marvel's truly complex characters and the role requires an actor capable of such complexity in order to make it all convincing. Cumberbatch does the job quite admirably, tackling one of the few roles in the Marvel universe so far that actually requires acting beyond one's fundamental personality (I'm looking at you, RDJ!).
For those not in the know, Strange truly is Dr. Strange from the very beginning. He's a successful neurosurgeon in New York City, though he's one of those surgeons more invested in fame and fortune that anything resembling a Hippocratic Oath. Strange's conceit will certainly bring to mind that of Tony Stark, though in Strange's case the conceit crashes head-on with reality when he loses control of his sports car and in the process is left with hands, his prized hands, mangled beyond anything western science can repair. Driving a brutal wedge between himself and his best friend and part-time lover Dr. Palmer (Rachel McAdams), Strange's obsession sparing no expense to uncover a miracle eventually leads him away from the big city and into the mystical world of Kamar-Taj in Nepal where he encounters Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and is brought before The Ancient One, played here by Tilda Swinton in a bit of reverse casting from Ditko's original vision of an elder Asian man with a long beard.
Fortunately, Swinton has no beard.
Doctor Strange is that rare Marvel flick that satisfies both intellectually and in terms of a full-on sensory experience. The truth is that rather early on in the film I'd already concluded I couldn't imagine anyone other than both Cumberbatch and Swinton in their respective roles, their acclaimed acting chops providing gravitas amidst everything that unfolds. Cumberbatch has always had a knack for playing characters outside the usual social networks of life, from the unfathomably intelligent yet socially awkward Alan Turing to his longstanding stint as the intellectually curious and rather smug Sherlock Holmes. Even if you don't fancy yourself a Cumberbatch fan, it's hard to argue that he's rather perfectly cast here.
While Swinton may not look the part, there's very little that Swinton can't do and she's absolutely sublime as The Ancient One, a mystical figure whose complexity unfolds over the course of the film and whose role is that of both teacher and mentor to the relentlessly driven Strange.
There are times when Doctor Strange slows down, perhaps it must, as it is an origin story that requires the unfolding of a multiple universes and worlds upon worlds while maintaining some semblance of cohesion. Surprisingly, it all works incredibly well.
You will, as one might expect, recognize signature cinematic moves from other Marvel films even beyond the obligatory and inevitable closing credit reveals. The doctor, for example, is a musical history expert and this instantly brings to mind Guardians of the Galaxy's pop music and, yeah, the tongue-in-cheek humor is also incorporated here in substantially smaller yet consistent doses. The film that may most come to mind would be Inception, especially once Strange enters the world of astral projection, unfolding universes that only those who are enlightened realize is unfolding and head trippy body morphing that somehow all makes sense in a way I'm not even sure I could adequately explain.
Trust me. It works.
I remember sitting in the theatre watching the Thor films and thinking to myself how utterly godawful the films' otherworldly scenes were being portrayed. The VFX felt B-grade to me and the lack of believability pulled me out of the films that I've long considered to be among the weakest among the Marvel entries. There's no such issue here. As directed by Scott Derrickson, a mostly horror genre vet with films such as Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Doctor Strange is grounded in all the right ways, lightly funny in all the ways, filled with almost psychedelic action and a film that succeeds despite having an arguably less charismatic leading character.
The film's baddie, a former student of The Ancient One who manages to steal one particularly devastating spell, is named Kaecilius and is portrayed with comic book menace by Mads Mikkelsen, an actor whose never met a baddie he couldn't portray with comic book menace. It probably doesn't help that Kaecilius's make-up isn't that far removed from Dr. Frank-N-Furter's closing moments. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives it his cheesy best as Mordo and it's clear by film's end that this is a character we'll be visiting again. And maybe again. Providing the film much of its dry, witty humor and proving to be a perfect companion for Strange, Benedict Wong is spot-on perfect as Wong.
Doctor Strange is both an effective superhero flick and one of the more intelligent, thoughtful Marvel entries that still manages to be an immense amount of fun and a beautiful film to watch. Nearly perfect in its casting, Doctor Strange may not have you screaming out "Awesome!" as you leave the theater, because it's a more solemn film that draws you in and never lets you go throughout its just shy of two hour running time. Doctor Strange will be back, we've been assured. I, for one, can't wait.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic