First Guardians of the Galaxy, then Ant-Man, and now Doctor Strange. Marvel has a knack for taking semi-obscure comic book characters and turning them into hit movies. Everyone knows Iron Man now, but back in 2008 Iron Man was nowhere near as well-known as he is now, and a big-budget movie about him was not necessarily a sure thing. Fortunately, that movie was awesome and was a big hit, and now, eight years and roughly a dozen movies later, here we are with Doctor Strange.
I was never a big fan of the character, he showed up periodically in some Spider-Man comics I read as a kid and while I never hated the guy, I always thought he was just a bit dopey, always shouting silly things like “By the mystical Eye of Agamotto!” that sounds like it came from a 50’s sci-fi movie. But getting Benedict Cumberbatch to play the character was yet another brilliant bit of casting by Marvel, and went a long way towards dispelling some of the doubts I had about whether Doctor Strange would be a good subject for a movie.
Well, chalk up another one for Marvel, because Doctor Strange is a heck of a lot of fun. Cumberbatch plays Doctor Stephen Strange (whose insistence on being called “Doctor” reminded me of Jack Sparrow’s insistence on being called “Captain”), a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon. He’s similar to Tony Stark at first: talented, brilliant, wealthy, but a conceited prick.
After a brutal car crash, Strange is left with severe nerve damage in his hands. He is left unable to perform neurosurgery, since his hands are always shaking. Desperate, he tries different experimental medical procedures, but to no avail. After Western medicine fails him, he turns to the East, where he encounters the Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton, and begins to learn the art of magic. A bit Harry Potter-ish, in a way.
Right off the bat, this is an incredible-looking movie. From the very first scene, a building-bending sorcerer battle, it’s apparent that the special effects in this film are unlike any other movie. This movie has some of the best special effects work I’ve ever seen, and is an absolute visual feast. Remember the scene in Inception where the city folds in on itself? There are scenes in Doctor Strange that are like that, but on steroids. Kaleidoscopic, trippy action sequences are the order of the day, and every one is a treat to watch.
Needless to say, Cumberbatch is terrific in the title role. It’s off-putting at first to hear him speaking with a flat American accent, but you get used to it before too long. He nails the accent, as Brits often do when speaking with American accents (I find that British actors are far better at American accents than Americans are at British accents) and he looks great when fitted out with the full Doctor Strange costume, including the aforementioned Eye of Agamotto and the Cloak of Levitation, which has something of a mind of its own.
It’s nice to see an Eastern-influenced superhero. Doctor Strange feels like its own movie instead of a retread of previous Marvel movies. Admittedly, the story is nothing special, but the film’s visuals and performances elevate it above other run-of-the-mill blockbusters. The movie was directed by Scott Derrickson, a director known mostly for horror films such as Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. This is a different kind of movie for him, and he handles it very well.
The movie drew some accusations of whitewashing for casting Tilda Swinton, a white woman, in the role of the Ancient One, who in the comics was an Asian man. Not being very familiar with the comic book lore of Doctor Strange, this bit of casting did not bother me. Swinton is such a chameleonic actress that I’m pretty sure she could be in a movie where she plays every single character and no one would even notice, much less care.
There is a villain, of course. The wonderfully-named Kaecilius is played by Mads Mikkelsen, who also played Le Chiffre, one of my favorite Bond villains. Mikkelsen is incredibly menacing, and makes a compelling dark sorcerer. His origin story is fairly bland (he was a student of the Ancient One who was corrupted by dark magic) but Mikkelsen is very watchable. I’m a big fan of his, he’s always one of my favorite things about any movie I see him in (Clash of the Titans, for example. The only two things anyone remembers from that movie are RELEASE THE KRAKEN and Mads Mikkelsen being awesome).
There’s a love interest, played by Rachel McAdams, and fellow sorcerers played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong, both of whom co-starred in The Martian last year. I like these actors and I liked their characters, but they still felt underused, especially McAdams, who doesn’t get to do much.
Doctor Strange is not a perfect movie. It’s not one of the top-tier Marvel movies. The plot is a bit rudimentary and some of the characters are underused. But it is still a lot of fun, with appealing characters and eye-popping visuals, and I am excited to see what the future has in store for Doctor Stephen Strange. Give Marvel a lot of credit for taking lesser-known characters and making fun, engaging movies out of them. I have yet to dislike any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, and I can’t wait for next year’s entries, which will include Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Thor Ragnarok.
And as always with Marvel movies, make sure you stay all the way until the end. That includes the end credits. You won’t regret it.