Though their bank statements may differ, I have personally felt that Marvel Studios had been resting on their laurels from Phase One — for every Captain America: The Winter Soldier, there was an Avengers: Age of Ultron; for every Guardians of the Galaxy, a Thor: The Dark World. My thoughts on their other release this year, Captain America: Civil War, were less than savory (and can be found in the backlogs of this blog), and yet, in spite of my dislike for the aforementioned film, I found myself adoring Doctor Strange. Normally, I have a three-strike rule when it comes to franchises, but having the fortune of knowing a privileged duo of Marvel crewmembers, the rule need not apply, and with Strange, they are absolved!
To understand the story of this film, your reading is heavy, happen you are not familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon. Those who are well-versed need not worry, and fans of the comics are in for one hell of a treat — several, in point of fact. First among them, Benedict Cumberbatch (The Hollow Crown: Wars of the Roses) and his portrayal of Dr. Stephen Strange, a sorcerer supreme in the making, but an arrogant bastard of a neurosurgeon at first, rendered humble by the circumstances that befall him — an avenger after my own heart. As Robert Downey Jr. became Tony Stark, Cumberbatch effortlessly becomes Stephen Strange, not so much in bringing actual life experiences to the character, but insofar as his knowledge of Eastern religion and deep spirituality — Strange is something of an extension of the Cumberbatch the world knows, and that is great.
As Dr. Christine Palmer, Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) plays a worthy romantic foil to Cumberbatch, parrying every zinger and wry remark he throws, sometimes hurls, at her. She has come a long way from playing the token wispy ingenue in drivel like The Notebook and State of Play, and I look forward to seeing her again in the MCU. A further welcome addition to the cast is Benedict Wong (Marco Polo) as the aptly-named Wong, wisely rewritten from Strange’s tea-making manservant to the librarian of the Mystic Arts with vicious late fees in tow. Speaking of vicious, Mads Mikkelsen (The Three Musketeers), previously in contention to play Malekith in Thor: The Dark World, is exponentially better utilized here as the borderline satanic Kaecilius, a disciple of the Mystic Arts who took a darker path — elements of Mikkelsen’s portrayal of the title character in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal are extremely prevalent here — he oozes villainy. Tilda Swinton (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), going bald and almost androgynous as The Ancient One, possesses all the gravitas of a leader with the control of a schoolteacher. The somewhat weak link in this great cast is Chiwetel Eijofor as Baron Mordo, an aide-de-camp of sorts to The Ancient One. He doesn’t seem to do much more than exist, but when the plot takes a turn for him, he portrays hurt feelings much like a child being told that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Props go to him, but here’s hoping there’s better meat for him to chew on next time.
That being said, standing at Cumberbatch’s side for this film’s success is director Scott Derrickson (Sinister), a man who brings his experience in horror films to the best possible use in a film of this caliber. Make no mistake, this is the trippiest and, dare I say, darkest Marvel film yet, and that is in part what makes it a success — this is no cut-and-paste job of previous efforts. What’s more, Derrickson’s horror experience means that the film moves briskly and without sacrificing story for action — this is a stellar origin story, and without him, I doubt the film would have held up. I have no control in the matter, but I hope Cumberbatch and Derrickson are signed for the next five (I hope) sequels! Another problem remedied from most Marvel films is the score, composed by Academy Award winner Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles), who takes the emotions of his Star Trek scores and merges it seamlessly with the electric grittiness of Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire.
Doctor Strange stands, in this reviewer’s eyes, among Marvel’s best — right above Thor and just under Marvel’s The Avengers. It’s spiritual without being cloying; it’s full of action without losing to the story, and it’s an origin story not bogged down by exposition. Full marks, and see it in IMAX 3D for the best viewing experience possible.