When I read Marvel Comics as a kid, Doctor Strange was never a character I followed. He’d show up regularly in other stories, a brooding character with his dark hair and high-collared cape. I never knew his origin story, so I came into seeing the movie version of Doctor Strange without a lot of expectations, other than that the cast was jam-packed with excellent actors. They deliver, but the story also delivers both thrills and more wit and intelligence that you normally expect in a superhero movie.
In the hands of Benedict Cumberbatch, Doctor Strange is a smarter and more mature Tony Stark. Stephen Strange is a brilliant neurosurgeon, and is often the case with such doctors he has a massive ego. They can’t afford any doubt in their trade. It’s good for their patients – in the opening scene he saves a man who’s been listed as dead and ready for organ harvesting – but it’s horrible for his relationship with Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), an emergency room doctor and the closest thing he has to a girlfriend. Strange has it all, until an accident snatches it all from him when it ruins his hands.
Strange pursues a cure through Western medicine with maniacal obsession and at the cost of everything he has. Then a man who’d suffered paralysis but recovered (Benjamin Bratt) sends him to Nepal to pursue an Eastern answer. There he meets Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who brings him to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). The Ancient One opens his mind to the multi-verse and sorcery. But at the same time danger has arisen from Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a sorcerer who has tapped into the power of the Dark World and threatens to destroy the Earth.
Writer/Director Scott Derrickson is known mostly for horror films, though ones that are a cut above the usual slasher fare (you could say). He did The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister, and Deliver Us From Evil. On the down side he directed (but didn’t write) the awful remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still. Derrickson had two co-writers: Jon Spaihts, who penned the Alien prequel Prometheus but who also wrote another movie out this year that looks really good, Passengers with Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt; and C. Robert Cargill, who’d worked with Derrickson on Sinister. The basis for the movie is the origin comic written by Steve Ditko, who’d worked with Stan Lee to create Spiderman. It helps that Derrickson is a long-time fan of the Doctor Strange comics, and his desire to do the story justice comes through clearly in the film.
Cumberbatch is an actor that could read a phone book and have people on the edge of their seats. He throws himself into the role completely, and carries us along on the adventure. One fun bit of trivia is that Cumberbatch spent his gap year in India as a volunteer English teacher in a Buddhist monastery.
The casting of Swinton as the Ancient One did cause some backlash before the film came out. However, it has the plus side of breaking any possible racial stereotyping with the role. It makes the title more of a job title than a physical description. Ejiofor brings his own exceptional presence to the role of Mordo, a role that will grow in prominence in the sequel based on the original story line of the comics and the tag at the end of this movie.
The special effects truly are special, though they don’t overwhelm the story but instead support it. If you don’t mind the surcharge, see this one in 3D so that you can experience the full scope of the visuals. Doctor Strange had the second best opening for a Marvel origin story, behind only Iron Man. For a character outside of the five premier Marvel characters (Ironman, Spiderman, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk), that is a major accomplishment. After this movie, though, the top of the class may expand to be the six.
There are two tags during the credits, one which leads into another Marvel movie next year, and one that sets up the next Doctor Strange film.