I have to confess I didn’t really know who Doctor Strange was when this movie was announced, but even if he’s just on the second tier of Marvel comic book creations, the new movie version giving the aptly named wizard a starring vehicle to practice his brand of sorcery is a mind-blowing trip like no other in this well-worn genre. As I say in my video review above, filmmaker Scott Derrickson has assembled an esteemed cast that is a cut above most of these kinds of movies and it makes all the difference when you put actors in for talent, rather than box office potential.
British star Benedict Cumberbatch, working with a finely honed American accent, is the perfect choice to play Dr. Steven Strange, an arrogant neurosurgeon who spouts off obscure music trivia like he was on an episode of Jeopardy! while in the middle of serious operations. He challenges everyone to prove he is wrong, which he assures them he never is. This guy is about a self-centered as they come but clearly has major medical talent — a miracle worker with his hands that so crucial to his job.
Alas, his carelessness in other areas leads to a horrendous crash when he loses control of his speeding sports car and careens into the drink — he barely survives but loses the use of his hands and with it, his brilliant surgical career. After a painful recovery and following months burning through his savings in a desperate search for a way to reverse his permanent nerve damage, he learns of a mystical place called Kamar-Taj (somewhere near Kathmandu), where he hears he might find the cure he’s been looking for. In no time he arrives, greeted by the mysterious Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who takes him to the spiritual leader, a bald and exotic figure known only as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).
She schools him in mystical doctrine combining Eastern philosophy with some esoteric science that puts healing the mind before healing the body. An impatient and disbelieving Strange is soon literally hurled through time and space that looks and feels like some sort of LSD trip out of the ’60s. Thanks to dazzling special effects we are right there with him, and I can only say this is one movie where seeing it in 3D is a must. The roller coaster-like CGI work is formidable. The Ancient One teaches him — eventually — how to enter different dimensions and to cast spells, where his hands take on powers he never could have dreamed. It comes in handy so to speak when, of course, he must eventually team with this group to fight evil in the form of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson), who has stolen some key and valuable pages from The Ancient One’s treasured book, essentially her Holy Grail, that contains to key to unleashing some particularly terrible things upon the earth. Sequences set in a twisted and contorted New York City are simply dazzling, as their battles bend the city out of shape for a cat-and-mouse chase through the ultimate maze.
All of this is pure Marvel mumbo jumbo of course, but it could not be more fun to watch. Cumberbatch proves a versatile star, stepping out the more proper British dramas we often see him do and really delivering a character that calls for sequels. Ejiofor has less to do but does it well. Two bonus sequences during the must-not-miss end credits promise there is much more he will be doing next time — and yes the final words on screen are “Doctor Strange Will Return.”
The supporting cast is fine with Strange’s medical colleague played by Rachel McAdams as well as Michael Stuhlbarg and Benjamin Bratt all turning up here and there. The great Danish star Mikkelson shows his villainy in a previous James Bond film was no fluke. I had particular fun with Benedict Wong, the quasi-librarian for The Ancient One, but it is Swinton, exotic and bald, who steals the entire film. You can’t take your eyes off her and, as always, she is perfection.
Jon Spaiths and C. Robert Cargill joined Derrickson in crafting the better-than-average and very smart screenplay. Producer as usual for all things Marvel is Kevin Feige. Disney opens this domestically Friday after early initial box office success in its international rollout.
Do you plan to see Doctor Strange? Let us know what you think.