Part of the reason Marvel’s latest comic book adaptation, Doctor Strange, works is because huge swaths of it don’t feel like a Marvel comic book adaptation at all. And while the titular character is inevitably charged with saving the world as we know it, he’s more importantly made to realize that if he wants to become “the hero he was meant to be”, he has to become a better person first. Strange must become selfless—not an easy task for this one-time neurosurgeon—and open up his mind to the possibility that there’s a larger universe around us that most of us are incapable of seeing without opening our elusive third eye.
I love that Doctor Strange isn’t about some form of technology used to enhance a learned way of fighting, and that it’s not afraid to get a little hippie and very trippy. Dr. Stephen Strange (the appropriately aloof Benedict Cumberbatch) is established as the type of doctor who will only take on patients if their particular brand of brain damage is interesting to him and they can pay. He wants nothing to do with the good of humanity or poor people. But after a horrific car accident that crushes his hands beyond use in the operating room, he heads to the furthest reaches of Nepal searching for alternative medicine to help fully cure his hands. What he’s met with is The Ancient One (played by a bald Tilda Swinton) and her closest associate Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), both of whom mix ancient religions, sorcery and a means of bending the shape of our dimension (and many others) to teach Strange how to unlock his full potential.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Strange is a fast learner and his thirst for knowledge (most of which comes in the form of ancient texts guarded by Benedict Wong’s character, Wong) is boundless. Before long, he’s performing incredible feats and able to use mystic artifacts such as the Eye of Agamotto so effectively, his teachers can’t fathom it. Mads Mikkelsen plays Kaecilius, a minor force in the comic books, but a gateway villain to something more familiar. Still, there’s nothing minor about the way Mikkelsen embodies the almost tragic figure who is drunk with power, both real and promised, who sees the need to destroy the known world in order to preserve and rule over it.
As conceived by director Scott Derrickson (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jon Spaihts and regular writing partner C. Robert Cargill), Doctor Strange seems to relish Swinton’s charismatic Zen-like delivery and I was just as eager to believe her as any of her disciples. After a few examples of astral projection and interdimensional teleportation, Strange seems on the path to full sorcerer, and before long he’s leaping back to New York (and into his new Greenwich Village pad, the Sanctum Sanctorum) in search of Kaecilius, who is destroying anything that keeps him from his destructive mission.
Despite its dark and deadly storyline, Doctor Strange manages to keep a running sense of humor. Dr. Strange is fully aware that his current sorcerer status may seem a bit bizarre to nearly everyone on the planet, and rather than attempt to explain himself, he makes a quip and moves on. The last 30 minutes of the movie feature some of the most extraordinary visuals ever featured in a Marvel film or any project of this magnitude. Borrowing heavily from the original comic book designs by Steve Ditko, the images of the metaphysical world of Doctor Strange are beyond description and wholly original in this cinematic universe (although there is some resemblance to the microverse revealed in Ant-Man). Not to mention, the way the various sorcerers bend New York City in on itself is pretty mindblowing too. Anyone who thinks from the trailers that it’s just a version of what was done in some of the dream sequences in Inception is going to have their mind blown.
If you’re a fan of the source material, once you get past the disbelief that you’re actually seeing the Cloak of Levitation as a living, sentient object, or watching the Eye of Agamotto opening and changing the very fabric of time, there’s still a genuinely magical movie to behold and a host of characters that I can’t wait to see again. The costumes and sets are lush and tactile, and the score by Michael Giacchino is rousing and uplifting. And then there’s Cumberbatch, whose transformation from cocky surgeon to altruistic sorcerer is a painful and difficult journey. He proceeds in stages, enters into battles before he’s fully grasped his abilities, and many of the fight sequences are deliberately sloppy and less than gracefully executed. Doctor Strange becomes a superhero film about a man who doesn’t realize he’s a superhero until deep into his adventure. All he wants are functioning hands; but The Ancient One wants him to save lives in a different arena.
For those who love the interconnectedness of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange probably is the most standalone work to date (but don’t worry, there are references galore, especially in the credits sequences, of which there are two), but it seems fairly clear how Strange will fit into the bigger picture of the Avengers, and they’re lucky to have him. Most importantly, the film gives us hope for the slate of announced new characters with films coming out in the next few years. There is more than one way to tell an origin story, and Doctor Strange sets an excellent example by altering the mold, if not entirely breaking it.
I recently had the opportunity go on-set of Doctor Strange for a series of interviews for Ain’t it Cool News. For deeper in-depth analysis of the film, check out interviews with starring actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. I also sat down with Scott Derrickson, the film’s director and co-writer.