Director: Scott Derrickson
Writers: John Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Based on the Marvel Comics by Steve Ditko
Benedict Cumberbatch: Dr. Stephen Strange
Chiwetel Ehiofor: Mordo
Rachel Adams: Dr. Christine Palmer
Benedict Wong: Wong
Tilda Swinton: The Ancient One
Benjamin Bratt: Jonathan Pangborn
Mads Mikkelsen: Kaecilius
Here’s the brief Marvel Bio on Dr. Strange:
“First Appearance Strange Tales #110 (1963)
Origin Strange Tales #115 (1963); Doctor Strange #169 (1968); Doctor Strange #45 (1992)
Stephen Vincent Strange
Height: 6’2 1/2″
Weight: 180 lbs.
Powers: Doctor Strange is one of the most powerful sorcerers in existence. Like most sorcerers, he draws his power from three primary sources: the invocation of powerful mystic entities or objects, the manipulation of the universe’s ambient magical energy, and his own psychic resources. Strange’s magical repertoire includes energy projection and manipulation, matter transformation, animation of inanimate objects, teleportation, illusion-casting, mesmerism, thought projection, astral projection, dimensional travel, time travel and mental possession, to name a few. The full range of his abilities is unknown. Doctor Strange’s powers are sometimes less effective against strictly science-based opponents, although he can overcome this limitation with effort.
Abilities: Doctor Strange is a skilled athlete and martial artist with substantial medical and magical knowledge. Though an expert surgeon, Strange’s nerve-damaged hands prevent him from performing surgery except when supplemented by magic.
Group Affiliations: Formerly Avengers, the Order, Defenders, Midnight Sons; former disciple of the Ancient One.”
Due to other obligations, I wasn’t able to see Dr. Strange until a few days ago, when I attended a midnight showing with two other movie patrons. It’s rather nice enjoying a movie without the press of others. As an avid Marvel Comics fan, I was, of course, aware of Dr. Strange, and fitfully followed the comics, but preferred other, less mystically oriented heroes. Teenagers tended to be that way back in the 1400s.
This is an origin story, and the plot follows the Marvel plot rather faithfully, though I admit my memory of the comic universe may well be a bit–imprecise. Dr. Stephen Strange is an intuitively brilliant neurosurgeon, a career and skill set that defines him. Injured in a traffic accident, his hands suffer severe nerve damage. He unsuccessfully hunts for medical restoration, bankrupting himself and nearly driving himself mad. However in therapy, he learns of a man that miraculously healed his severe spinal injury: Jonathan Pangborn, played by Benjamin Bratt. Seeking him out, he learns Pangborn found his answers in Nepal, specifically Kamar-Taj.
Strange goes on the road, finds the Ancient One, who is not on top of a snowy mountain in an ancient monastery, and learns the secrets of the mystical universe at a staggering rate. Obviously, he was born to this, but it is not until the end of the movie that he embraces his new, amazing knowledge and abilities. It is only then he realizes his quest was not to restore his abilities as a surgeon, but to fight the battles the Avengers can’t fight: to save the world, multiple worlds, dimensions, universes.
There is a reason Marvel movies are a relatively recent arrival. Only recently have computer graphics attained sufficient flexibility and power to make the imaginations of Marvel artists come fully alive. The CGI effects in Dr. Strange are not only beautiful in terms of the richness and luminosity of color, but in concept and execution. There is much churning of landscapes as in Inception, but the idea is much more refined and cleverly applied. The effects can’t be adequately explained; they must be seen.
Production values are excellent. Marvel movies have become so seemingly effortlessly good, one tends to take aspects of them for granted. The movie moves swiftly: there are no dead spots, and thankfully, the director did not fall into the trap of thinking dark themes require low-light, or shaky camera filming techniques. The movie is a continual visual feast.
Benedict Cumberbatch is an excellent choice for the role. Not only does he look the part for those familiar with the original comics, his performance is sufficiently nuanced. He does not immediately change from an arrogant, if brilliant man, to a completely humble, meek, though unimaginably powerful man. He is a dynamic character, but a round character as well, complex and compelling. All Marvel movies employ wry humor that shows heroes as fallible people, and this is no exception.
Rachel McAdams, as Strange’s fellow surgeon and sort-of love interest does very well, but due to the origins nature of the movie, she is underused, though this is true of just about everyone other than Cumberbatch. Some reviewers have suggested that her character is merely a prop for Strange, someone forgotten until he needs her. Rather, she is a foundation, a woman Strange never forgets, but can not reclaim until he reclaims himself. The possibilities for them are left open.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Mordo, who is initially one of the students of The Ancient One, and a teacher of Strange, but soon becomes his sidekick, and a sort of moral touchstone, one who seeks to keep Strange on the straight, moral path. The martial arts skills he has displayed in movies such as Serenity, are present, but not used as effectively as they might be. Not only are the disciples of good mystical warriors, they are also martial artists. This allows the script to employ some of the successful physical combat elements of Marvel films, while also moving beyond them into new realms of possibility.
Benedict Wong plays something of a stereotypical Asian librarian, protecting ancient texts of great power. He is skeptical of Strange, but must eventually admit and appreciate his great powers. After all, Strange saves his life, vanquishes the evil bad guys, and forces an unimaginably powerful and evil force to leave Earth alone, though it presumably continues to gobble up other dimensions, universes, realms, etc.
Tilda Swinton’s The Ancient One is difficult to describe. She is not at all what one expects, but then again, much of this movie breaks stereotypes. She is a fine actor, and plays the role with confidence and humor, but leaves the plot somewhat unsettled. It is, after all, not her origin story.
Mads Mikkelsen–readers will recognize him–plays Kaecilius, who steals pages from one of the books of the library, and uses it to connect with the evil force Strange eventually defeats. His role is mostly confined to chasing Strange and Mordo all over the place with the help of several henchpersons. He also produces the usual villainous threats and sneers.
Ultimately the movie is about Strange’s internal journey. Seeking healing so he can resume his medical career, he finds something greater, a new purpose, but stumbles into it. He does what is necessary, but in saving everything, breaks unspecified natural laws. Mordo, his mystical conscience, cannot abide this, and leaves, though it’s likely he’ll have to return.
Marvel Chief Stan Lee has his usual humorous cameo role, and the brief, after-the- ending-credits foreshadowing that is a Marvel movie trademark, suggests–humorously–Thor and Loki will play a significant role in the next Dr. Strange epic. Loki seems a natural foil for Dr. Strange, and is one of the Marvel universe’s most compelling characters.
Holding Dr. Strange back from box office greatness is the very nature of the heroes’ internal conflict. Stories about people overcoming arrogance and excessive pride are a dime a dozen, but Dr. Strange treats the conflict with subtlety, and it is not entirely, conclusively resolved even as the movie ends. Though Strange is clearly more comfortable in his newly discovered role, and perhaps even no longer fixated on his identity as a physician, he has much to learn, as Wong tells him. And in this, a franchise may be built. However, understanding and following such gradual, thoughtful transformations requires greater age and more experience than many movie fans may easily appreciate. The trick is to balance the elements appealing to a younger, more action-oriented audience with those appealing to an older, more thoughtful audience. It will be interesting to see where Marvel takes that balance in the future.
Dr. Strange is not Marvel’s most accomplished superhero movie, but as with all Marvel movies, is enormously entertaining. It will likely not be the biggest Marvel box office draw, but the movie is certainly worth seeing on the big screen, and is a worthy addition to any DVD connection.