“A fully assertive celebration of the pizazz that can be added to spruce up the familiar first-entry formula.”
by Ken Bakely
Marvel does not discriminate based on popularity when choosing which of its comics properties to adapt for the screen next. The fame of the source material does not matter – each film is given a full-scale, elaborate treatment when it comes to birthing the origin story. Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange is no exception to this rule. Globally scaled and generously surrealist, the movie is a refreshing burst of energy to a blockbuster scene which can often feel overwrought. There’s a firm degree of confidence to the proceedings, as the production ultimately reveals itself as a fully assertive celebration of the pizzazz that can be added to spruce up the familiar first-entry formula.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a gifted, cocky neurosurgeon in New York City. He’s a renowned professional at the top of his game, and he knows it. However, his successful career is brought to a sudden end after injuries sustained in a car accident leave him with permanent damage to his hands. Shunning the attempted intervention of others, including his colleague and ex-girlfriend Christine (Rachel McAdams), Strange stumbles upon an experimental healing process practiced in Kathmandu. Upon arriving at his destination, he finds that he has discovered something much more bizarre – a compound of sorts called Kamar-taj, where some kind of interdimensional sorcery is studied and practiced.
Under the guidance of a sorceress simply known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Strange is introduced to a world beyond rational explanation, and the denizens of the institute teach him to defy the dimensions of our world and access other universes. In the process, he learns of a growing evil, in the form of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a sorcerer who has gone rogue, forming a dangerous splinter group with the intent to rapidly destabilize the natural order and wreak global havoc. Strange, in the process of fighting this plot, takes it upon himself to explore the depths of this world and expose some dangerous truths along the way, even if it means creating schisms with masters Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong).
Benedict Cumberbatch headlines the film as the titular character, and provides a continually entertaining, enticing performance. He’s at the forefront of an enigmatic cast which brings the 115 minute story to life. Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One presents herself as a suitably otherworldly figure, with Swinton applying deft mysticism in the character’s slight, graceful tics, aware of more complex depths hidden below. An occasional appearance from Rachel McAdams opens up a window to the grounded world of the story, as Christine takes on the role of the straight man during a number of chaotic instances when Strange’s battles with fellow sorcerers cross into everyday New York.
Derrickson is an assured filmmaker, who fills the movie with an inimitable, full-bodied mixture of fantasy worldbuilding and perfectly peppered-in humor. There seems to be a resistance for many superhero films to explore the depths of their own ridiculousness, and when applied incorrectly, this often leads to a rather dour experience where you feel as if there’s a big joke that’s laying ignored at the center of the material. Doctor Strange makes sure to present itself as fully approachable fare, seen through a keen barrage of one-liners, as well as a kaleidoscopic burst of colors, mirrored images, and bright, vivid setpieces, seen when Strange crosses into interdimensional planes. If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if someone like Alejandro Jodorowsky was given a blockbuster budget, Derrickson and the visual effects team try their best to figure it out.
Yet curiously, there are times when Doctor Strange’s visual ingenuity comes at the cost of fleshing out the origin story at hand, including further explaining the foundational details of this world that it creates. It’s a further indication of the studio’s insistence on latticed franchising, in which each individual film and character is consistently and automatically tied into a greater universe. There is a presumption on the part of the screenplay that some things will be explained later, and there will be multiple opportunities to go further. But Derrickson is a strong helmsman, and his skills are sufficient to bridge this gap, allowing this production to join other Marvel staples, like Guardians of the Galaxy, in delightfully prodding at the tired structures of the superhero film and bringing a welcome burst of originality to what could have been a cookie-cutter expenditure.