Doctor Strange proves no Marvel property is a match for the mighty Marvel Studios formula. This is the 14th Marvel Studios film, but this crazy imaginative, visually mesmerizing ensures the thrill of exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe definitely hasn’t gone. At this point, it’s not a surprise when a Marvel Studios film lives up to expectations, but this entry proves there’s still so many fascinating corners left to uncover.
Despite the Marvel Studios signature touches of brilliant casting, breathtaking action and just the right amount of humor, Doctor Strange represents the most unique entry in the Marvel Universe. The source material demands this not be a film that easily fits into the Superhero 101 box. It’s out there, a little bizarre and satisfyingly strange.
While telling an origin story in 2016 might seem tedious, it’s necessary. Proving that the Marvel creators back in the 1960s were ahead of their time storytellers, the screenwriters don’t switch much up outside of setting it in the present day.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, Black Mass) is a brilliant neurosurgeon. Only problem is he knows it and isn’t afraid to make sure everyone knows he’s the smartest guy in the room. It’s not until a horrific accident that Strange learns humility and begins the path to becoming a hero.
The big challenge for Director/Co-writer Scott Derrickson was not to simply make this a retelling of the Iron Man origin. There’s unavoidable similarities, but it doesn’t feel like a straight rehash.
Credit a lot of that to Cumberbatch. He was reportedly Marvel Studios’ first choice for the role and it doesn’t take long to see why. Cumberbatch brings an air of sophistication and confidence that fits a unique space in the already stellar Marvel actors’ bullpen. He’s prickly without that disarming frat boy charm Robert Downey Jr. brings to Iron Man.
Traveling far and wide in hopes of restoring himself, Strange seeks out The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, who nearly steals the film). Under her teaching and the instruction of her aides, Karl Mordo (Chiewetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong, The Martian), Strange slowly learns to tap into a power he never knew existed.
Giving Strange a photographic memory was a smart way to explain how quickly he learns the tricks of the magic trade. A montage of him poring over books for years would feel overdone and is a natural ‘superpower’ that could come in handy for future films when he needs to learn new spells.
Doctor Strange is the comic book movie equivalent of an acid trip. That’s fitting since creator/artist Steve Ditko frequently used psychedelic imagery and way out there concepts in the comics.
Doctor Strange can’t manage to overcome the other constant Marvel Studios curse — a largely underwhelming villain. Kaecilius is just another in a now long line of archenemies determined to destroy the world. That’s somewhat disappointing as Mads Mikkelsen can be a wonderfully sinister bad guy. His sneering La Chiffre helped make Casino Royale one of the best James Bond films, but he never has the opportunity to make Kaeclilius memorable. It’s a testament to the film that an underdeveloped villain doesn’t ruin any of the fun.
Rachel McAdams fares slightly better as the potential love interest, Christine, but the romance subplot felt more obligatory than essential.
I’m betting the mid-credit scene is intended more as a teaser of one of the 2017 films much in the same way the Ant-Man scene played into Captain America: Civil War. Regardless, it’s a fun scene and further whets the appetite to see Strange interacting with his fellow Marvel heroes. The end credit is more than a quick Easter Egg and lays the groundwork for future Doctor Strange films.
With a cast featuring Cumberbatch, Ejiofor and Swinton, there’s plenty of substance to go around, but it’s the style that really makes Doctor Strange spectacular. While the film wasn’t shot in 3D, the reality-warping effects clearly have to be seen in 3D to fully appreciate.
The action sequences are staged like the perfect hybrid of The Matrix and Inception. That mix is important as too much of either would make the film too derivative. Derrickson definitely has an affinity for the source material. He gets what makes Doctor Strange work and doesn’t compromise that for mainstream audiences completely unfamiliar with the character.
For that reason, this might be the one film that might not have the same widespread adoration of the other Marvel Studios movies. But with 14 films in the tank and more coming every year, this is the type of atypical property that needs the cinematic spotlight. There’s never been another comic book film remotely close to the Doctor Strange experience and I can’t wait for the doc to make his next theatrical house call.
Rating: 9 out of 10
Photo Credit: Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures