The hits just keep on coming for Marvel Studios. The folks that can seemingly do no wrong have again taken a lower-tier superhero and spun gold. This time, it’s “Doctor Strange,” the latest edition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is a trippy, psychedelic, and really fun introduction to the world of magic within Marvel’s realms. Not only does this open up their universe in an intriguing new way, it doesn’t rely solely on setting up future installments. Yes, there’s scenes during the credits that suggest where the MCU is going, but the runtime is dedicated just to the introduction of “Doctor Strange.” For that alone, Marvel deserves some credit. Luckily, the entire production is top notch.
“Doctor Strange” is the beneficiary of not just strong direction by Scott Derrickson, but also memorable turns by Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton in central roles. They’re some of the best actors in the business, so their talent goes without saying, but they sell their characters in an unexpectedly touching way. Considering the visual prowess that Derrickson is putting forward, they could have easily gotten swallowed up. That’s not the case, however. The look of “Doctor Strange” may be breathtaking and unlike anything else out there, but the acting is another reason why this is the great success that it winds up being.
An origin story, we meet Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) as he’s at the height of his medical prowess. A brilliant neurosurgeon, Strange is gifted but cocky, something his former lover and current colleague Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) is only too willing to point out. When a car accident damages his hands, Strange blows all of his money and most of his sanity searching for a cure. This quest leads him to the Far East, where alternative forms of medicine and therapy await. Found by Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), he’s brought to The Ancient One (Swinton), a guru of sorts. She’s healed bodies before, but Strange is skeptical, that is, until he sees what she’s capable of. Then, he becomes a willing student of her mysticism, introduced to alternate dimensions and much more.
Strange is on the road to becoming a master of the mystic arts and perhaps even the next Sorcerer Supreme, but is still an unconfident novice when his services are required. It’s for the good of humanity too, forcing Strange to not think only of himself for the first time. Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of The Ancient One, has possession of spells that could end the world. Thus, a hero is born, as Doctor Strange struggles with his new role. Battles ensue, with many showcasing some incredible imagery. Plot wise, it’s more or less standard issue Marvel, but the look of it all is what sets “Doctor Strange” apart and makes it one of the studio’s best origin outings yet.
Cumberbatch turns out to be a really great choice for this role. Not only does he ace the hero elements of the story, he’s actually pretty funny in the part. This is closer to Robert Downey, Jr. in “Iron Man” than you would expect. It’s a charismatic and winning turn. You’ll want to see Cumberbatch put on the cloak ASAP, and that’s a major compliment. Just as good is Swinton, who very much makes this character her own. She’s truly enjoying herself, and it rubs off on everyone, including the audience. The initial interactions between Cumberbatch and Swinton are terrific.
Previously mentioned supporting players like McAdams and Mikkelsen are sadly wasted for the most part, which is often the case with Marvel. Love interests and villains are sort of their Achilles heel, which we’ve known for years now. They do their best, but the material just isn’t there for them. In addition, we’re just more interested in Cumberbatch’s Strange. Ejiofor gets a bit more to do, but you can sense that he’s being saved for a potential sequel. Other cast members of note here include Scott Adkins, Benjamin Bratt, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benedict Wong and more. Without question though, the production belongs to Cumberbatch and Swinton, in terms of the acting at least.
Director Scott Derrickson really ups his game here. He’s always been a competent director, but this is something new and exciting from him. His script, credited to himself, frequent co-writer C. Robert Cargill, and Jon Spaihts, is more or less what you’d expect from a Marvel outing. The screenplay is funnier than expected too, considering some of the heavier themes. It’s his direction that shines most though, especially with the effects. Cinematographer Ben Davis deserves a lot of credit too for not letting it swallow up the whole film. It’s entrancing, but you never forget the story. Furthermore, this is the rare movie I’d actually advise to see in 3D. You can thank me later. Below the line, composer Michael Giacchino does reliably good work as well.
To reiterate, “Doctor Strange” is a visually sumptuous and satisfying Marvel origin story. Within the MCU, it’s in the upper echelon, perhaps even in their top five overall to date. If you dig superhero flicks, this is undoubtedly up your alley. Even if you don’t, it’s something different, which is rare. In addition, the special effects and visuals might just make it worth your while, as they could even garner Academy Award attention. The credits promise that our hero will return, and that’s good to know. “Doctor Strange” does a nearly impeccable job of making you yearn for more adventures in the multiverse. It’s trippy and weird, but in the best way possible.
“Doctor Strange” is distributed by Walt Disney Pictures and is scheduled to hit theaters on Nov. 4.