Marvel Studios has done little to relinquish their iron-clad grip over the state of superhero cinema, and their chief competitor seems more than willing to shoot themselves in the foot. Now that Marvel has become a cornerstone of the pop culture conversation for nearly a decade, the studio has been focusing on getting some of their lesser known characters to grace the silver screen. First was the surprise hit of Guardians of the Galaxy, and then Ant-Man came and surprised many people. Now the Marvel Cinematic Universe is ready to crossover into its oddest corners yet with Doctor Strange, an enduring character that has never been overly popular despite being the figurehead of Marvel’s mystical elements.
All of the problems that afflict most Marvel movies – underwhelming villains, epic final battles that seemingly always have the fate of the world hanging in the balance – are here. All of the things that set Marvel apart from their competitors are also here – a great cast, a light touch to its sense of humor. What Doctor Strange has that no other comic book movie does is a wild visual style that pushes the boundaries of effects technology while dazzling the audiences with imagery that is as colorful and bizarre as anything Jack Kirby committed to paper with pencil and ink.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a neurosurgeon whose talents are only matched by his hubris. Working alongside his former lover and current colleague Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), Strange works wonders on patients that are teetering on the brink of life and death. When a car accident severely damages his gifted hands, the brilliant surgeon goes in the midst of a personal crisis as he’s always identified himself through his work which he is now incapable of performing. Having exhausted the limits of medicine, Strange travels to Kathmandu in search of a mystical place that can teach one to channel unknown healing abilities. With an assist from the stranger Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Strange finds himself under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who opens up the world to Strange beyond the simple façade of everyday life. As Strange becomes a student in this world of secret mysticism, he finds himself a soldier in an impending war between the sorcerers for good and Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of the Ancient One turned bad who wishes to surrender Earth to the world-eating demon from another dimension Dormammu.
Not only does director Scott Derrickson’s film feature some of the most eye-popping visuals of any modern blockbuster, it breezes along despite a large amount of expository dialogue that defines the film’s first half. Screenwriters John Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill, and Derrickson are tasked with establishing a wildly complicated world that exists on the fringes of the MCU, but with a few well-placed jokes and a lot of forward momentum they overcome this obstacle with ease. Whereas most Marvel movies are concerned with nods to the past and winks towards the future, Doctor Strange is probably the best of the recent standalone films to emerge from the MCU.
In his first turn within the MCU, Benedict Cumberbatch holds own. He’s magnificent in presenting the complexities that define the character – his early egotism and latter altruism – as he’s going through these changes before us. Cumberbatch brings a deft sense of comedic timing to his role as well. Shinning opposite Cumberbatch is Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. Of course, Swinton’s casting has caused its own set of controversy for whitewashing of the traditionally Asian character in the book. I guess the only way the filmmakers could dodge this charge is by casting someone who is practically an alien. In brief supporting roles, Benedict Wong and Michael Stuhlbarg flesh out each side of Strange’s multi-faceted reality. Sadly, Mads Mikkelsen isn’t destined to be the next great Marvel villain. The Danish actor is given a fairly undefined character, though he does get a few moments that are slightly notable. However, Kaecillius is just another in a long line of interchangeable, underwhelming villains within the MCU, all of which pale in comparison to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.
The real reason to purchase a ticket for Doctor Strange are the astounding visuals that Derrickson brings to the screen. From its opening scene to its conclusion, Doctor Strange is a visual feast that is never anything short of spectacular. In the modern era of CGI, visual effects have lost the quality to inspire wonder because the answer to “how did they do that?” is simple: computers. But Doctor Strange defies such a simple answer and despite its ample CGI imagery, there’s still that sense of wonder as to how these amazing images were brought to the screen. Rarely do I feel the need to endorse a film’s 3D presentation, but Doctor Strange is the exception (and the IMAX isn’t too shabby either). Whereas previous Marvel films have felt as if 3D was an afterthought included only for the few extra bucks it adds to ticket cost, it feels absolutely necessary with Doctor Strange, as the added depth to the film enhances the interdimensional psychedelia on display.
Every year the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. With Doctor Strange, it’s undoubtedly for the better as the Sorcerer Supreme unleashes a new level to the MCU that stands on its own, though we all know it’s going to tie in to the whole in the very near future (a mid-credits scene also provides a tease that is a genuine surprise). At this point, I’m left to wonder just which unlikely character Marvel wouldn’t be able to effectively introduce into the MCU. (I don’t know, Super Pro?) Armed with the Cloak of Levitation and the Eye of Agamotto, Doctor Strange is equipped to fight any form evil, even your own cynicism towards the Marvel Cinematic Universe.