4 out of 5 stars.
At its core, “Doctor Strange” isn’t anything new for Marvel. It centers around an arrogant man who comes upon a particular power (“Iron Man,” anyone?) and decides to use it for good. But it’s how writer/director Scott Derrickson and his all-star cast translate the material from the comics to the big screen in a way that transcends the typical hero origin story that truly makes it a stand-out entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange, a neurosurgeon who is celebrated for his abilities and has become arrogant as a result, taking cases not so much to save lives but to prove what he can do. When Strange loses the use of his hands in a brutal car accident, his whole world changes. Desperate to regain what he’s lost, Strange is told that any procedure that could heal him would be impossible, until he comes across Jonathon Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a man who used to be almost completely paralyzed but was miraculously healed after traveling to the Kamar-Taj in Nepal. Strange goes there and meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a sorcerer who has the power to open up and travel to other dimensions.
Gradually, Strange’s arrogant manner fades as he goes from believing he knows everything to realizing that he knows very little about the universe. He trains under the Ancient One and learns of the Sanctums located around the world that protect the Earth from other, dark dimensions, and of the ability to time travel using the Eye of Agamotto. Strange exhibits a natural ability for the mystic arts, but is forced to put his newfound ability to the test when he goes up again Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former pupil of the Ancient One who turned on her and stole texts from the Kamar-Taj’s library, telling him how to summon the Dormammu of the Dark Dimension, which would allow him to live forever.
On paper, the plot doesn’t amount to much more than a lot of mystic mumbo jumbo. But on screen, “Doctor Strange” comes to life through a smart script, a talented cast, and a head-spinning array of stunning special effects. It may be a superhero origin story, but “Doctor Strange” marks the first time a big-screen Marvel superhero has powers derived from supernatural means, opening new doors for this movie and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The story never becomes overly muddled with talk of astral planes and mirror dimensions and Sanctums and time loops because Derrickson introduces the viewer to each element one at a time; like Strange, just when we think we know everything, there’s more lurking just around the corner. “Doctor Strange” is actually rather short for a big-budget action movie, clocking in at a little under two hours, and perhaps could have done with a bit more character development here and there: more scenes of Strange leading up to his accident to further establish the character, more backstory on the Ancient One and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a fellow student of the former who teams up with Strange later in the movie, and more Kaecilius in general (let’s face it, this could have been an even more compelling villain, and Mikkelsen has more than proven in his past work that he can nail the complicated villain type). But as an intro to this new universe, it still works.
A lot of that is due to Cumberbatch, who not only resembles Strange as he appears in the comics but effortlessly steps into the character, portrayed the many facets of Strange as the character arcs from selfish to selfless. He nails the humor, the action scenes, and even the American accent, and plays well off of Rachel McAdam’s Christine Palmer, a fellow surgeon who also happens to be Strange’s ex-girlfriend, and is effective in a small but important role that doesn’t make her feel like a token leading lady. The supporting cast is solid (in fact, it features the most stunning array of talent of any Marvel movie to date), from Ejiofor and Mikkelsen to Swinton and Benedict Wong, who plays the serious guardian of the library who is at odds with Strange for much of the movie.
Swinton is very good as the knowledgeable guardian who helps Strange become the man he was meant to be, although her character is not without its controversies. In fact, much has been made of the film’s appropriation of Asian culture and the whitewashing of Swinton’s character, who is actually an Asian male in the comics. It is semi-uncomfortable to watch these characters don the apparel and customs of Asian people, and while it doesn’t entirely excuse it, it is important to note how diverse the cast of “Doctor Strange” remains. Derrickson himself has said that the casting of Swinton as the Ancient One is in itself a diversification of the character, giving a woman the rare chance to play a wise mentor while avoiding the “Dragon Lady” stereotype they could have potentially fallen into. It’s a complex matter that is worth discussing before either outright condemning or praising it.
The most impressive part of “Doctor Strange” by far, however, is the visual effects. This is that rare movie that if you have the ability to see it in IMAX 3D, by all means do. The multi-dimensional travel in “Doctor Strange” brings the viewer through all sorts of psychedelic sequences. Buildings and streets constantly spin around and turn on their heads as characters chase each other through the mirror dimension in New York City, while the climax takes us to the unexpectedly colorful Dark Dimension. One of the most impressive sequences is when the Ancient One first reveals the astral plane to Strange, giving both him and viewers a taste of what’s to come. Strange rockets through time and space, floating around as hands grow out of his hands, among all other manner of bizarre imagery. It’s trippy, it’s colorful, and it’s mind-boggling in the most delightful way possible. This isn’t something that has been done in a superhero movie before. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why you go see movies in the theater, on the big screen.
This is the first Marvel movie in a long time that feels like it truly stands on its own, outside of the series of events that has crossed and tangled all the other Marvel heroes and their films into one massive, continuing storyline. Sure, the end credits set “Doctor Strange” up to join all those other characters and their shenanigans in future films; we already know that Strange will eventually be a part of the Avengers. But for now, let’s appreciate “Doctor Strange” for what it is: a good old-fashioned superhero origin story wrapped up in a complex and uniquely stunning package.
Runtime: 115 minutes. Rated PG-13.