Like every other movie released from Marvel Studios, “Doctor Strange” had a pretty considerable amount of hype built up in the months prior to Friday’s premiere date. It would’ve been hard not to walk into the theater expecting a tour-de-force, with a cast full of some of the most respected actors in Hollywood, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejifor, and Tilda Swinton. The trailers kept the hype train rolling, highlighting the film’s visual effects, such as reality-bending scenes reminiscent to Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” Not surprisingly, it was the acting and the visuals that carried the film, and while the plot is simple and even predictable at times, the movie keeps a strong blend of charm and stunning excitement. While the film carries strong formulaic similarities to many other installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s tone reflects a fantasy element that we have yet to see in that world, giving us a much-needed fresh experience.
The film opens with villain, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson) and his followers breaking into Kamar-Taj, a secret compound in Kathmandu, Nepal, to steal a page from a book belonging to The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). When The Ancient One arrives on the scene, she pursues them in thrilling chase, as both her and Kaecilius use their mystical abilities to alter the physical setting, but ultimately she loses Kaecilius and the page.
Next we are introduced to Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the world’s premiere neurosurgeon, performing a complex surgery, while at the same time,rattling off useless music trivia to his fellow surgeons. This, along with the obligatory for-the-sake-of-the-audience casual conversation about his background and character with colleague (and former flame) Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), gives us a sense of just how arrogant and self-absorbed Strange is. While on his way to a benefit, Strange’s car is sideswiped off the road in a horrific car accident, one that horribly crushes his hands. As he slowly recovers, the reality of him never being able to perform surgery again starts to take hold, and it sends him into a depression that drives everyone away, including Christine. But when he meets a man who, as a paraplegic, made an impossible recovery back to his former state, he travels to Kamar-Taj in Nepal, where the man tells him to seek out The Ancient One for the secret of his recovery. Strange meets with The Ancient One and also befriends on of her followers, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and both introduce him to the world of the mystic arts, where he learns how to harness energy from other dimensions in order to physically conjure anything he desires. While he learns how to use this power, Kaecilius and his minions work to open our world to a dark dimension, and Strange must now put his newly acquired skills to the test.
The movie isn’t without its share of similarities to the other films within its shared universe. The audience’s introduction to Stephen Strange is one that is very typical in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Just like when we first met Tony Stark, Thor, and even Star-Lord, we are introduced to a misguided individual using his talents for his own benefit. But true to Marvel’s origin story formula, certain circumstances set Strange on the path to redemption. While most audiences today are sick of origin stories, with a property as little known as “Doctor Strange,” showing the character’s origin is necessary, and what better way than a redemption story. Similar to 2008’s “Iron Man,” the film gives us a character so arrogant, that we can’t help but despise him upon first meeting him. This is a character that is hard to love, but proven to be very talented, and just like Tony Stark, he doesn’t lose his arrogance, but instead, earns our admiration when it becomes clear that he is the only one capable to saving the day. This formula allows Cumberbatch to really play the part with bravado, injecting humor and depth into his performance. Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor both give the film stability in their performances; Swinton offering a calm worldliness that gains your trust, while Ejiofor portrays a sense of duty that is unbreakable, setting up a stark contrast to Cumberbatch’s Strange. Benedict Wong’s character of Wong is the perfect comical partner to Strange, as they play off each other in the most humorous scenes in the film. Mads Mikkelson’s Kaecilius is very menacing, but like all Marvel movie villains not named Loki, is criminally underwritten and underutilized, as his first interactions with Strange in the film gives us a taste of the kind of personality the writers could have taken advantage of.
The effects in the film are unlike anything seen in the superhero genre. Visually, “Doctor Strange” is stunning, with director Scott Derrickson providing chase scenes and action sequences amidst a backdrop of beautifully disorienting effects. The fact that the characters in the film have the ability to manipulate dimensions is fully taken advantage of, and it’s one of the few movies that I truly recommend seeing in 3-D. Differing from most superhero movies, the effects don’t reflect destruction and mayhem, but rather, mysticism and magic. This, along with the fact that Doctor Strange is more of a mystical sorcerer than a traditional superhero, makes this film a lot more palatable for viewers who may be souring on typical superhero movies. You get the sense that you’re watching a dark fantasy film, displaying themes consistent with romanticized eastern philosophy. But more importantly, just like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” you don’t have to be familiar with all the other movies in the MCU just to follow and enjoy this film, allowing it to stand on it’s own and forge it’s own identity.
“Doctor Strange” succeeded by knowing what it’s strengths were, and executing them very well. Marking the first installment in Marvel’s “Phase 3” of films, “Doctor Strange” is a refreshing movie within a genre in need of change-ups to keep audiences interested, which this film definitely accomplishes.