Despite having a long and illustrious career in comic books the character of Doctor Strange, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko way back in the 60s, has never quite reached mass public consciousness in the way as say Spider-Man or Captain America, but now that the Marvel brand has produced box office hit after box office hit the studio has become more comfortable introducing lesser tier characters like Ant-Man and Doctor Strange to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This isn’t the first attempt at a live action Doctor Strange movie; in 1978 there was a Doctor Strange TV movie that was a pilot for an intended television series that sadly never happened, but now decades later Marvel Studios releases a big screen and big budgeted version of the Sorcerer Supreme that is chock full of stunning visuals and a star-studded cast. The movie is your basic origin story where we meet Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) a brilliant neurosurgeon whose skills are only rivaled by the size of his ego; when a tragic car accident ruins his hands and thus his career (seriously, distracted driving is bad, don’t do it), and because Strange defines his life by how good he is as a doctor he spends his entire fortune on experimental procedures in the hopes of restoring his hands to full functionality.
After learning of a patient by the name of Jonathon Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a paraplegic who mysteriously was able to walk again, Strange seeks him out and learns of a place called Kamar-Taj located in Katmandu, Nepal. It’s here that he meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who is the current Sorcerer Supreme of Earth, and aided by Master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong) Strange learns that the world he has lived in up to this point is just a fraction of what is really out there, and that mystic powers and outer-dimensional forces are constantly at war. The current threat is from an old pupil of The Ancient One named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who has stolen a forbidden spell that will allow him and his followers to summon the powerful entity Dormammu of the Dark Dimension, in the hopes of gaining immortality.
As I stated this is an origin story and director/screenwriter Scott Derrickson does an exemplary job introducing us to the characters and worlds of Doctor Strange; but like many comic book movies that spend three quarters of the movie on the origin aspect of the story, and then have to cram the villain of the day into the last third, the villains are short changed a tad. Dormammu is treated as more of an abstract threat and Kaecilius, while a credible threat, isn’t more than your standard thug DuJour and only rises above that because of the casting. Mads Mikkelsen in this part certainly helps with this problem, he has played enough villains that he can come across as menacing and scary without much effort at all, but I simply adore Mikkelsen and wish he’d been saved for a Marvel villain with a bit more substance.
That said this is still one of the better Marvel movies and much of that is due to the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the title character; his transformation of egocentrically arrogant dick to hero is believable and organic as is his rocky relationship with fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who works as this film’s anchor to the “real” world.
Aside from Cumberbatch the big star of this film is the visual effects and boy does this film not hold anything back. When our heroes face off against the villains in world bending gravity shifting fights it is simply breathtaking, think Inception on steroids, and this is one time I can honestly say that seeing it in 3D is a must as it really adds to the experience.
This is also the first Marvel movie to really dive into magic and the mystic arts wholeheartedly, Thor was mostly handled as science fiction film with a dash of fantasy, and though one can say that the manipulation of dimensional forces is just another form of science, to me this movie is all about actual magic; you have dudes casting spells, teleporting across vast distances, and astral travelling, and though Arthur C. Clarke has stated, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I myself still like to think of this as pure sorcery minus Harry Potter’s wand.
Though part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe there is only a few nods to the other films; we see the Avenger’s tower jutting up in the Manhattan skyline, there is a magical artifact that will be very important in the upcoming Infinity War, and of course the standard cross-over credit cookie, but if someone were to watch this movie without having seen any of the previous Marvel films they’d still get immense enjoyment out of it as it really works well just as a standalone movie. If this film had a more fleshed out villain it could have easily been one of the best Marvel movies to date, but as it is it’s still a fantastic experience and one I can heartily recommend to comic book fans and newbies alike.
Note: The casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One has received a lot of flak, much of it deservedly so as the character in the comics is Tibetan and thus this looks like another clear case of Hollywood whitewashing, but as the inclusion of a Tibetan character would have torpedoed ticket sales in China I can completely understand the change, if still sadden by it. On the plus side Tilda Swinton was amazing in the part and seeing her fighting against superior numbers like a true badass is one of this film’s joys.