Dir. Scott Derrickson
In the corridors of a cavernous movie theater, following the latest installment of the Marvel movie juggernaut, a young girl, maybe 9 or 10 years old, excitedly proclaimed, "Now I know why they call him Doctor Strange! He's kinda strange!" To which another of Benedict Cumberbatch's characters might roll his eyes and say, "Brilliant deduction."
I'm not here to belittle this young fan, she was running and jumping around with her friends, clearly overjoyed with the movie she'd seen (and possibly under the influence of a potent sugar dosage), and I couldn't blame her for being enthusiastic or having such a clunker of a revelation. However, let me take my finger, push my glasses up the bridge of my nose and say, actually, of all the characters in this hypnagogic adventure, Doctor Strange is close to the bottom of the strange list. Then again, the young girl did say he was only kinda strange, right?
You see, Stephen Strange is a highly respected surgeon - one of those doctors you often see on the screen: cocky, arrogant, god complex, the kind of guy who lives only for the job and isn't afraid to tell a colleague (Michael Stuhlbarg, punching way below his weight in an extended cameo) that he's not fit to clean his scrubs. As such, Strange's arc is a very traditional one: after an accident sends his hands plunging into his luxury car's dashboard, the resulting nerve damage leaves him handicapped, humbled and on the hero's journey to emerge as a more enlightened man with, of course, superhuman powers.
Thankfully, this familiar front-end business is dealt with swiftly, though Rachel McAdams lends it some emotional resonance as Christine Palmer, the one colleague who can put up with Strange's super ego despite her regrets about their brief romance. And in case you're wondering, yes, they do take some time in these early proceedings to poke fun at the idea that a character, even in a Marvel movie, would be called Dr. Strange. There's jokey references to Palmer coming up with a Strange Policy against dating coworkers and a new medical technique being called the Strange Procedure.
There's some chemistry to be had between Cumberbatch and McAdams, but the the movie really comes alive after an increasingly hopeless Strange gets a tip about a place in Nepal that might be able to fix his damaged hands. This where we meet Tilda Swinton's Ancient One, who not only opens Strange's eyes to the powerful world of the mystic arts, her very appearance sparks the movie and makes it instantly captivating.
This isn't Swinton's first foray into comic book movies, some viewers might remember her appearance in the pre-Iron Man era's Constantine, a movie that isn't as bad you might think, though Swinton made it ten times better every time she appeared on screen. There are few actors with as much grace and presence as Swinton, and she makes for a brilliant choice to play what is essentially the Obi Wan Kenobi/Yoda of Doctor Strange.
And much like Star Wars, as Strange learns the way of the mystic arts, he finds out there is a dark side to all this sorcery, and a previous disciple of the Ancient One has joined this side and is causing quite the rumpus. No, his name isn't Vader, it's Kaecilius, and he's played by the reliably menacing and soulful Mads Mikkelsen who's got some killer eye shadow that helps give the impression that his humanity is chipping away. Strange's first encounter with Kaecilius is also the first real test of his newly developed wizardry skills and this confrontation proves to be a helluva showstopper and arguably worth the price of admission on its own.
Judging from the movie, the mystic arts provides a practitioner with a grab bag of weapons and defenses (a lot of whips, swords and shields), plus, with a spin of the arm, one can open up a portal to somewhere else in the world, or to another dimension. Strange is still getting the hang of all this whiz-bangery while Kaecilius and his crew of flunkies have the business down pat - and the ensuing fight, which takes place in a New York museum that doubles as one of Earth's sanctums (a special place that keeps the evil at bay), is a fantastically entertaining display of expertly choreographed movie magic.
During this scene, I was reminded of some of the great Jackie Chan movies, where he would play a guy that was obviously outmatched, yet through a brilliant mixture of acrobatic bumbling and ingenuity he would manage to squeak through. And so it is here: Kaecilius has grown powerful enough to bend matter and twist ceilings and floors into walls, so Strange has to scramble, think on his feet and get creative in order to turn defense into offense. Gravity, along with many other foundational principles of physics and a couple of bad guys get thrown out the window during this amazing set piece. Luckily, a magical cape in the museum decides to get involved and help Strange out, and judging by the audience's response, this cape seems poised to be the breakout star of the movie.
More set pieces like this, though never quite as breathtaking, follow as Kaecilius tries to take out all the sanctums and let the big evil space entity take over Earth. Helping Strange along the way is Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong), and it's ultimately to the movie's detriment that it can't find all that much for these other characters to do. Ultimately, it all leads up to a big reveal that is supposed to make certain characters feel shaken to their core, yet it comes across as more of a standard plot point that hardly deserves all the fuss it's given.
However, while some motivations don't feel as though their properly earned, the visual world that is created here does earn the extra bucks for the 3D experience (something I certainly didn't expect to be saying going into it). Director Scott Derrickson, along with the special effects and art direction teams, has fashioned an impressive look for Doctor Strange that both honors the immersive world of Strange's comic books origins and is unique enough that it transcends the familiar structure of movies like The Matrix and Star Wars.
Sure, it's unfortunate that comic book movies are all anyone seems to be passionate about these days, but Doctor Strange is another good reminder of what got everyone so excited about all those years ago. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, and even Ant-Man, these movies can still defy expectations to take viewers some place new, fun and exciting. And when it comes to world-building, Strange shows that Marvel is still an expert with some surprises up its sleeve.