Marvel’s Doctor Strange is their latest superhero origin story and it focuses on a brilliant yet arrogant protagonist who learns that his real purpose is to help humanity and not just use his powers for his own personal glorification. If that sounds a bit like Iron Man, the first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you wouldn’t be wrong. The challenge for Disney’s multi-billion dollar franchise after 14 films is to inject enough newness and other positive aspects to support its existence. In that sense, the sometimes visually stunning and very well-cast Strange passes the test.
Our newest fella to join the caped club (and it’s a pushy and sometimes humorous cape we eventually discover) is first seen as genius neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). He’s an egotistical NYC doc who’s a wizard with his hands. His two most prized possessions are irreparably injured in a wreck that serves as the most expensive anti-distracted driving commercial ever shot. The doc’s colleague and former flame Christine (Rachel McAdams) tries to help, but his desperate search to cure his idle hands leads him to Nepal. That is where he finds a mystical compound led by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who informs him that true healing comes from a lot more than surgery.
Together with her trusty sidekick Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), they show the doctor a whole new universe that involves plenty of training and plenty of other crazy dimensions that are packed with some pretty sweet visual effects. Scott Derrickson, known primarily for horror titles like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister, directs his biggest budget several times over and assures himself future tent poles.
There’s a main villain and he’s Kaecilius, played by a game Mads Mikkelsen. MCU movies have often seen the bad guy be the weakest link and that holds true somewhat here. The character is a former Ancient One protege gone astray and there’s nothing too memorable about him. It’s not a major hindrance at all, however, as Strange is a genuine origin story that needs some time to establish this part of the MCU (The Avengers are only referenced in passing). Plus, don’t we know at this point that the primary villain in these origin stories rarely end up being the chief nemesis anyway?
Casting is key. This series of movies we now see at least two of per year may have never gotten off the ground without the impeccable casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. And Cumberbatch is a fine choice in this title role, effortlessly balancing the drama and humor of the screenplay. Swinton and Ejiofor add some heft as well. The slight romantic subplot between Strange and Christine is typical and unremarkable, though their interaction does provide a couple of solid operating room laughs.
The aforementioned newness here is the effects, including various scenes of Inception-like architectural bravura that may leave Nolan proud. That, coupled with the performers, elevate Strange to a level well worthy of recommendation. It may not be until after the credits (and mid and post credit bonus sequences) roll, that you realize how familiar its story actually is. And I suppose that’s a credit to the franchise makers of how strong and steady their hand actually is.
*** (out of four)