While it’s not the quantum step forward in terms of storytelling some have assumed it to be, Doctor Strange is still a much-needed variation Marvel’s movie formula, one that opens up the MCU to in terms of style and possibility. It’s also trippy as hell just plain fun — something that many of 2016’s superhero flicks weren’t.
It was worth it for Marvel to put in the extra effort to land Benedict Cumberbatch, who perfectly inhabits the role of Dr. Stephen Strange, who is to brain surgery what Tony Stark is to super science: cocky and arrogant, but also brilliant and highly talented. Cumberbatch brings the gravitas and enjoyable degree of assholery, and also knows when and how to land a laugh when needed.
Much like Stark, Dr. Strange is humbled the hard way in a gnarly car accident that cripple his million-dollar hands beyond repair. Just as his options appear to be exhausted, an unexpected lead sends Strange to the Far East, where he encounters s secret sect of sorcerers (say that three times fast) lead by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her right-hand mage, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiafor). Strange learns to restrain his ego and open his mind, just in time to help battle apostate sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who intends to sell the universe out to an extra-dimensional entity in exchange for eternal life.
Much like the first Iron Man movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Ant-Man, it’s a story with high-stakes but a narrow, intimate focus that results in momentum, urgency, and character development without the obligatory orgy of mass destruction. (It’s limited to a couple of city blocks this time.) Yes, it’s another origin story, but thankfully Strange’s is a more exotic one that necessitates a variation of the formula.
The movie is also a much-needed visual shake-up. It’s the biggest departure from Marvel’s signature middle-of-the-road visual style, with a truly impressive effects design that often alternates between trippy cosmic planes that mix 2001: A Space Odyssey with Steve Ditko’s comic book panels and shifting, fractal cityscapes that make Inception look quaint by comparison. Added to that is a pseudo-psychedelic score by Michael Giacchino, the first truly standout soundtrack in a Marvel film.
Doctor Strange still falls prey to one or two of Marvel’s bad habits, namely a mixed bag of supporting characters and a lackluster villain. Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Valhalla Rising, and TV’s Hannibal) has never failed to bring subtle menace when cast as a bad guy, but he is limited by the generic evil of Kaecilius; there’s just not a whole lot there to expand upon. The same goes for Ejiafor and Mordo, as well as Benedict Wong as the sorcerer/librarian Wong, though the latter is elevated from sidekick/butler status and the former is set-up as a future antagonist.Rachel McAdams is woefully underused as stock estranged love interest Dr. Christine Palmer.
Swinton is fine as the Ancient One, but the controversial revision of the role from elderly Tibetan man to Celtic woman proves to be a mixed bag. Points for switching the gender and using Swinton’s trademark androgyny to lend an ethereal air to the character, but an Asian woman would have been a more believable choice given that much of the movie is set in Hong Kong and Nepal. (Michelle Yeoh, perhaps?)
Director and co-scripter Scott Derrickson proves to be another example of Marvel’s knack for finding the right director in unlikely places, having toiled for years on B-level horror flicks such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister. His work on those movies seems to work in everyone’s favor; horror works on a personal level and so does Doctor Strange, even when the hero is outwitting vast cosmic evil in a place on the outskirts of space-time that resembles a blacklight poster run amok.