‘Doctor Strange,’ the latest comic book adaptation from Marvel Studios, proves yet again that the hit factory can take even the most esoteric material and create compelling, exciting entertainment. Through spot-on casting and the most spectacular special effects yet seen in a super-hero film, the magical corner of this now sprawling universe is effectively introduced. As the titular character goes through his journey of self discovery, propelling through dimensions beyond normal perception and learning how to manipulate mystical energies, so does an audience eager for something a bit weird.
In perhaps the biggest coup in superhero casting, Benedict Cumberbatch is on hand to bring Dr. Stephen Strange to magical life. Ostensibly an origin story, Cumberbatch’s Strange starts as an egotistical and extremely gifted neurosurgeon who loses the use of his hands in a horrific car accident. He has the unique ability to convincingly wear the desperation on his face as he journeys into the east seeking alternatives when modern medicine fails him. It’s hard to imagine any other actor in the role as he gradually masters new abilities shown to him by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton in a gender/ethnic swapped role) and dons the distinct red cape (one that is sentient and provides organic comic relief) and blue tunic that could have been laughable.
Cumberbatch is surrounded by a highly capable and classically trained supporting cast. The aforementioned Swinton brings a knowing wink and sly intelligence to a role normally very familiar, that of the reluctant master teacher. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Mordo, a fellow sorcerer and staunch supporter of the rules established by their leader, to the point where he is a foil to the rule-breaking and risk-taking Strange. Character actor Benedict Wong solidly portrays Wong and the fact that he goes by that singular name provides an effective running gag. Rachel McAdams does all she can with a bit of an underwritten role, but her Dr. Christine Palmer helps drive Strange’s evolution from a selfish, ego-driven braggart into a selfless hero, and does provide everywoman reactions to the crazy events of the story. Finally Mads Mikkelsen is on hand as villain Kaecilius, a former student looking to throw in with the dark side of magic.
Director Scott Derrickson (‘Sinister’) provides the film with a very distinct visual aesthetic that can only be described as slickly kaleidoscopic. The action takes place in cityscapes folding in on themselves, actors running up walls/ceilings, and dispensing golden sparks of magical constructs. When Strange is first introduced to what these clandestine sorcerers refer to as the ‘multiverse’, his astral form is spirited through an extended sequence that rivals the ‘beyond the infinite’ portion of ‘2001.’ The establishment of these extra dimensions opens up all new sources of potential threats to a Marvel Universe plagued by aliens, gods, technology, and super soldiers. It will be interesting to see how Doctor Strange will fit into the larger world so strongly established in the previous thirteen films, and of course how Tony Stark will react to Strange co-opting his facial hair . . .
Directed By: Scott Derrickson
Written By: Scott Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, & C. Robert Cargill
Running Time: 115 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- A-