Quick Take: Marvel Studios gambles on magic, and Doctor Strange delivers the most true-to-the-source characterization -- and mind-bending -- Marvel film to date.
Even though Dr. Stephen Strange has been an integral part of the Marvel Comics Universe for decades, the character has never transcended into other media like most of his four-color contemporaries. A failed CBS TV pilot in the 1970s, and a few guest appearances in various animated shows and movies throughout the years is the closest that fans have come. But now, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe absolutely ruling box-offices worldwide, the time has come for Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme, to have his time to shine in the ever-growing cinematic universe.
Doctor Strange stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular Stephen Strange, a cocky neurosurgeon who loses the use of his hands in an auto accident. Strange then scours the world for different possible cures to his debilitating nerve damage, and stumbles across a secret cabal of magic users who defend the world from the darkness. While his hands are never fully healed, Doctor Strange finds a new calling, and battles a wayward sorcerer named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), while being trained in the mystic arts by the mysterious Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Wong (Benedict Wong).
Doctor Strange is perhaps Marvel Studios’ boldest movie yet. While the character is iconic in the comics, it’s a tough sell to audiences who expect men in suits of high-tech armor and truly super-powered heroes like Thor and Captain America to punch their way to victory. Doctor Strange is a master of mysticism. He has a cape with a mind of its own, an amulet that contains an infinity stone, and can conjure spells with his lame hands. But what makes Doctor Strange appealing is that he fights against not just his own enemies, but against the enemies of the Marvel Universe as a whole. Villains like Dormammu, Nightmare, and Mephisto and the great big baddies that not even the Avengers can handle. For that reason, Strange’s introduction into the MCU is very much needed, and very much welcomed.
Director Scott Derrickson (the Sinister films) creates a visual film like no other. This is the first Marvel Studios film that must be seen in 3D on IMAX to truly, truly appreciate. It is eye-popping, gravity-defying, and just plain insane. This is what it’s like to be on mushrooms (so I’ve been told, um…) and Doctor Strange completely delivers on the visual front.
Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Strange is, in my opinion, the closest to any Marvel Comics-written character to date. In the third act, when Strange comes face to face with a powerful, ancient enemy, the solution he comes up with to defeat his foe is steeped in the source comics. This made me smile, as this is the Stephen Strange that I know. The cocky, “I’m smarter than anyone” doctor, humbling himself; sacrificing himself to win the day, knowing that magic is on his side. This was the most thrilling part of the film for me, more so than any of the visuals of buildings folding into themselves and other dimensions, or sorcerers dueling with spells. This scene with Cumberbatch truly becoming Stephen Strange sold me on the film — and the franchise — and I cannot wait to see Doctor Strange again in future films, his or others.
Doctor Strange is not without its faults. Rachel McAdams is a complete waste here as Strange’s ex-girlfriend and fellow surgeon, Christine Palmer. She has one scene with any gravity and just happens to be around when Strange needs medical attention later in the film. Doctor Strange has a very important female role in his life with Clea, a fellow magic user, so the decision to use McAdams as a surgeon/love interest fails and hurts the film. Also, unlike previous films, Doctor Strange lacks some of the humor that makes the other films enjoyable to non-comic fans. There are one or two lines that are chuckle worthy, but on the whole, this is a humorless production. And as it gets into some very dark territory late in the film, Doctor Strange needs the humor. The problem with this is that Stephen Strange — as he is portrayed in this film — wouldn’t crack wise (short of some bad jokes that he makes, but I guess that is the joke). Now, and in future films, we will see more humor from the good doctor, but don’t expect to laugh much here.
Doctor Strange was a gamble for Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios, but as they tend to do, they cast it well, found the perfect director, and nailed it for the most part. It is visually stunning in every way, and the first film worth the extra cost for 3D and/or IMAX. This film gets the origin out of the way, and not only hints at things to come, but shows them, introducing some very powerful foes to this cinematic universe. Lastly, the two stingers (post-credits scenes) set the table for the next two years of Marvel films, making the mid-credits scene almost as important as when Thanos turned his ugly purple head and smiled for the camera. Almost.
Doctor Strange is rated PG-13 and is in theaters in North America on November 4.