As the Marvel Cinematic Universe expands exponentially, Kevin Feige and the gang have reached a point where they need to start throwing wrenches into their works. The movies are feeling increasingly familiar. The heroes are increasingly similar. It’s all getting a bit samey. Thankfully, here’s comes ‘Doctor Strange’, a movie that might not reinvent the Marvel formula, but at least serves up eye candy unlike anything else in superhero blockbusters right now.
The film is a wonder to behold on the big screen, even justifying the tacked-on 3D that has plagued many a Marvel romp. Even if this is unlikely to be anyone’s favorite Marvel picture, the fact that director Scott Derrickson has delivered something that feels fresh in the franchise is almost a minor miracle.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays the new wise-cracking rogue. This time, he’s a super arrogant super surgeon – kind of like Tony Stark with a scalpel. Unfortunately, he ends up in a car accident that claims the dexterity in his famous hands. Desperate for a miracle cure, he travels the globe and eventually finds his way to the doorstep of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Along with sidekick Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor in a fairly thankless role), they open up the good doctor’s third eye to a wider world of magic never seen before. Along the way, Strange learns of an evil villain named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen in CGI-enhanced eyeliner), who’s bent on world destruction. That means Strange will need to master his dimension-hopping magical powers quickly to put a stop to the baddie. Along the way, he may also win the heart of Rachel McAdams’ tiresome “girlfriend at home” who will hopefully have more to do in further chapters.
Basically, this is yet another superhero origin story the likes of which you have seen too many times before. You know, it’s one of those movies where a sarcastically hilarious nincompoop learns to be selfless by becoming more powerful than he ever imagined. It’s the same old thing, but with a new world of magic to add a little something to the equation.
Cumberbatch is as charismatic as expected, even if he needs a little time to settle into his American accent. Tilda Swinton is predictably fantastic in her Yoda-esque role, being all enigmatic and ass-kicking in the ways she does oh-so-well. Mikkelson has one of those typically thin Marvel villain roles to play, but he’s such a naturally imposing and immensely entertaining screen presence that he overcomes the limitations of the screenplay. As for Ejiofor and McAdams? They’re overqualified and underused, hopefully with larger roles in inevitable crossovers and sequels to justify their space in the MCU.
You get what you expect from ‘Doctor Strange’ on a certain level, including plenty of sardonic humor crammed in (apparently from an employed-at-the-last-minute Dan Harmon, no less). However, where the film really takes off is in the mysticism and spectacle. As is the Marvel way, directing duties fell into the affordable hands of an indie filmmaker. In this case, Scott Derrickson got the call after making a name for himself with horror movies like ‘Sinister’ and ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’ that were far better than they had to be. Derrickson has always been an overtly spiritual filmmaker. He clearly takes the mysticism and gentle sprinkling of Eastern philosophy quite seriously here and even tosses in at least one cheeky Christian metaphor for good measure. In fact, this might be the one Marvel movie in which the comedy is somewhat unwelcome because the mythology is so intriguing and… well… trippy.
The selling point of ‘Doctor Strange’ and what makes it such a sight to behold on the big screen is the masterfully surreal magic imagery that Derrickson and an army of digital artists have delivered. The original ‘Doctor Strange’ comics were an outlet for artist Steve Ditko to dabble in the type of psychedelic imagery that was all the rage at the time and kept hippies returning to the Marvel racks. The way Derrickson applies that 1960s mind-bending to the digital age is jaw-dropping, with the ‘Inception’-style city folding shown off in the trailers only the beginning. The kaleidoscopic surrealism on display is the sort of thing that wasn’t even technically possible back in the ‘Iron Man’ days and could only be deployed in a blockbuster with these considerable resources. The film has a number of stunner sequences, almost impossible to describe and worth dabbling with in 3D for maximum impact.
If ‘Doctor Strange’ brings this sort of comic book imagery to every movie he graces with his cape, this guy is a welcome new focus in the MCU. That doesn’t mean the movie is a masterpiece. It’s still flawed in all the ways Marvel movies are. However, Derrickson has proven that there are still tricks left in this old war horse. That qualifies as a pleasant surprise bordering on rousing success. Bring on Phase Three.