Doctor Stephen Strange may not be a household name, at least not yet, but he has been one of the essential corners of the Marvel Comics universe for a number of years. Created in 1963 by Steve Ditko, the psychedelically influenced master of the mystical arts has fought the metaphysical, joined the Defenders, sported a porn moustache in a 1978 telemovie, and generally held things together behind the scenes as a member of the Illuminati.
Yet this version of DOCTOR STRANGE traces his earliest days, and the path is not as winding as his history would imply. Brilliant but arrogant surgeon Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) loses the use of his hands in a car accident. Leaving behind fellow doctor and (sometimes) lover Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), Strange heads to Nepal to seek a mysterious cure from the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Instead, he opens up a whole world previously unknown to him, and makes an enemy of rogue pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).
For Marvel’s first cinematic foray into the mystical and Multiversal, with elements in the Thor series notwithstanding, director Scott Derrickson and his co-writer C. Robert Cargill play it pretty straight down the line. In essence, this is a prototypical hero’s journey, as the novice leaves the comfort of the ordinary world and crosses a threshold that will change him forever. Cumberbatch is perfect casting, carrying the right amount of gravitas to pull off a cocky surgeon, but with enough humility to make the corresponding self-deprecating humour work in equal measures. As a potential replacement for Robert Downey Jr’s lynchpin Avenger, Cumberbatch is easily as formidable, if not more so.
Where DOCTOR STRANGE really shines is in the inventive and visually creative use of set design, action sequences and mindscapes. We get a glimpse of this Inception-esque mirror world in a pre-credits sequence, and later when the Ancient One cleanses Strange’s third eye. Yet the film really soars when those action sequences take place in the inverted M.C. Escher inspired surrounds of New York, with a mixture of visual effects that are both elegant and genuinely fresh. The climactic fight messes with the notion of time itself, and it’s fun just watching the pieces comes together.
In Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius, Derrickson and Cargill finally overcome Marvel’s issue with uninspiring villains. Although single-minded, and to some extent one-dimensional, he provides a solid focal point for Strange’s mono-mythic journey. Swinton is delightfully otherworldly as the ‘good’ counterpoint, and Benedict Wong (as a librarian simply named Wong) steals every scene he is in with a bemused and taciturn performance. Only Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo fails to get adequate screen time to convey his undeniable presence, perhaps being saved for development in later entries. The same is true of McAdams, who is quite literally on call in the sidelines.
In a year when superhero films have been dark and brooding, filled with teams of villains, and pitting the capes against each other, DOCTOR STRANGE comes at us with an unapologetic message about believing in something larger than yourself. It’s appropriate that this will open up the Marvel Universe to a whole new level of storytelling. It also goes without saying that you should stay to the end of the credits for no less than two stingers, setting up the road to Thor: Ragnarok. Until then, the Eye of Agamoto has opened us up to the possibility of something completely different.