In terms of his presence in the Marvel Comics from whence he sprang, Doctor Strange is always one of those characters who worked better for me in small doses rather than as the star of the show. Now, don't get me wrong, while the so-called "Sorcerer Supreme" of the Marvel Universe has been a mainstay of the line since his 1963 introduction (via Stan Lee & Steve Ditko) and he's anchored his own title(s) for big chunks of that span, I'm more familiar with him as the go-to source for exposition or deus ex magicka depending on the storytelling necessities of Spider-Man, the Hulk, or various other costumed characters.
All of this is to say that when the announcement came a few years ago that the good doctor was in line to get the big budget Marvel Studios treatment, I was skeptical that the character could hold up under the scrutiny of having to be the center of the action for two hours and change. Of course, that was before Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man (one of my favorite movies of last year) rewrote the conventional wisdom of what to expect from comic book backbenchers. And now Doctor Strange, the movie, is here (more mid-level player than backbencher), proving that if there are indeed limits to the Marvel approach, we haven't bumped up against them just yet.
As written and directed by veteran horror helmer Scott Derrickson, Doctor Strange's mystic realms and otherworldly dimensions are grounded in an obvious affection for the comic book source material (a switch from the previous try at bringing Strange to live action), while breaking the boundaries once again of the ever-expanding edifice that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The title character here is Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the "Doctor" in his name ain't just for show. A preternaturally gifted neurosurgeon with the arrogance to match, Strange's life is shattered after a car wreck severs the nerves in his hands and ends his surgical career.
Exhausting all medical options and desperate to reclaim what he's lost, Strange heads to far-off Nepal and the doorstep of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), an enigmatic instructor in "the mystic arts" who opens his mind to sorcery and other planes of reality. Of course, while all this is going on, the Ancient One's former student Kaecilius (Madds Mikkelsen) is making plans to sell out the Earth to the dark lord Dormammu, and it's up to Strange and fellow mage-in-training Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to stop him and save the planet. Man, where are the Avengers when you need -- oh, right.
I've been reviewing Marvel Studios movies for eight years now, and I honestly feel like a broken record at this point extolling the baseline of absolute consistency that franchise honcho Kevin Feige and his team manage to muster year after year. It's absolutely unprecedented. And also, to be clear, let's not mistake "consistency" for a lack of originality or lack of risk-taking. Rather than take the easy route by cranking out Iron Man sequels at as rapid-fire a clip as possible, the Marvel slate for the past few years has shown a remarkable willingness to push the brand into new areas, both in terms of characters and content.
That said (and I'm about to slightly contradict myself here), it's also clear they've learned the right lessons from Robert Downey Jr.'s popular portrayal of Tony Stark, and those lessons are brought to bear with the same basic arc: Self-possessed jerk is brought low thanks to his own arrogance, and in trying to free himself from his suffering discovers he actually has a conscience. Of course, the mere repetition of the arc isn't itself a guarantee of success (look no further than 2011's Green Lantern for proof -- or don't), so all due credit to Derrickson for finding new ways to play with genre tropes and spin them in new directions.
While I'm not sure Cumberbatch grabs ahold of his role and owns it like Downey did, he does confidently step into Strange's mystic garb and floating cape (which has its own personality a la Aladdin's magic carpet). Bonus points also for how he twists, turns, and squeezes his trademark basso profondo into an unwieldy American accent. And while underdeveloped villains have been a particular bugaboo with these movies, Mikkelsen is a charismatic enough presence to somewhat sidesteps a distinct lack of motivation. To that point, the impressive battles scenes as buildings and landscapes fold in on themselves like Inception-on-steroids do a lot to help hold our interest as well.
As for the other players, while Swinton's selection as the traditionally elderly, Asian, and male Ancient One set off a mini-furor on the web, her presence adds depth and vulnerability. (Speaking of Asian characters, Strange's comic book manservant Wong is given a much more proactive role here, as played by Benedict Wong.) Ejiofor's Mordo is also a compelling presence, with the ending of the film setting up some directions I look forward to seeing explored. Not faring as well is Rachel McAdams as Strange's long-suffering colleague/love interest, Christine Palmer. McAdams is too good a performer to do anything but solid work, but I wish she had more to play with here.
Of course, as with all of these Marvel Studios movies, once one is out, we're conditioned to immediately turn our thoughts to the next in line (which the mid-credits sequence helpfully queues us up for). And while the threat of "superhero fatigue" (Strange is the sixth super-offering to hit theaters this year alone) hangs heavy as studios increasingly jockey to get their piece of the lucrative "shared cinematic universe" pie, I don't think the Disney/Marvel team has to worry about their brand faltering if Doctor Strange is an indication of what's on the horizon. B+
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