7 out of 10
Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Doctor Strange Review:
There are two types of superhero origin story. There is the origin story which perfectly encapsulates the superhero’s character and primary conflict to the point that once it is finished – once he has moved from non-superhero to masked vigilante – he is frozen in that state forever. The superhero’s origin is the most dynamic version of the character and everything after is just some variation on that original theme. Call it the Batman-type.
The other is the slog; the mass of exposition and rules and character history which must be ingested and understood in order to create the understanding necessary for future stories. It tends to make for good sequels with dynamic character relationships that can be stretched in lots of ways, but good god can it be tough to sit through (and seldom revisited). Doctor Strange is very much of the latter school.
For those not familiar with the comic character (and by this point Marvel movies are filled with as many characters general audiences have never heard of as ones they have), Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) was a world-renowned surgeon whose career was ended after a car crash severely damaged his hands.
When traditional medicine fails to give him his hands back, he travels the world looking for an alternative cure, eventually becoming a student of The Ancient One (Swinton) who introduces him to the mystic arts. Quickly becoming an accomplished sorcerer, he finds himself taking on more than he ever dreamed when a determined former pupil (Mikkelsen) of The Ancient One returns with a plan to destroy the world.
Alan Moore famously said Stan Lee’s idea of characterization was to give his characters a limp or other handicap and a persecution complex about it, but it does work in broad strokes. Cumberbatch quickly and expertly grasps Strange’s dimensions, from his charming but annoying arrogance to his self-destructive pride, walking the tricky line of being a negative personality without alienating audiences. It’s very much the sort of thing Robert Downey, Jr. has perfected in these Marvel films and Cumberbatch approaches it in a similar way without just doing mystic Iron Man.
It’s particularly impressive given that there’s not much too him – he gets hurt and learns magic (and with it a certain amount of grace) and that’s it. Even more impressively, he manages to imbue a classically stodgy character with a certain degree of humor (the screenplay by Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill and director Scott Derrickson has a few truly excellent exchanges, and a few really clichéd ones) which more than anything else humanizes him.
There’s an unfortunate tendency towards slapstick, particularly once his flying cloak shows up, which is a temptation which should be avoided by all future Doctor Strange filmmakers, but apart from Cumberbatch’s strange choice in accent is one of the few real flaws in the character.
And considering he spends much of his time with the film’s best conceived and executed characters – Swinton’s Ancient One and Ejiofor’s Mordo – what flaws exist are easy to overlook. Swinton is obviously enjoying herself immensely as the cantankerous but graceful teacher, and Mordo has real dimension which could conceivably make him one of Marvel’s most interesting future characters.
When the three of them are together, it’s almost possible to forget that most of what they are talking about is how the rules of magic work and what it is that Kaecilius is doing so that the audience can follow along the vertiginous visuals which are a part and parcel of any sorcerer fight. If Doctor Strange lives or dies on anything, it’s the thought and execution which Derrickson and company have put into the way the magicians alter the world around them. When it’s just men in robes doing kung fu and swinging glowing sticks at each other, it’s hard to differentiate from other films like this.
But once the walls of the world start folding in on each other (in sequences which have obviously taken a lot of inspiration from Chris Nolan’s Inception, and then some), it becomes something else indeed. There’s still not much to it, but for a few moments it’s easy to care.
Those moments do pass, unfortunately, and in their wake tends to come more exposition. Or even more rarely, character interaction with some of the other people in Strange’s life like Rachel McAdams’ long-suffering Doctor Christine Palmer.
Like Mordo’s back story or Strange’s powerful medallion, they are ultimately garnish for the film, giving it color and decoration, but offering nothing of substance. They show clearly what could go into a really good Doctor Strange film and how it might work, and that these may indeed be the people to make it. But you’ve got to watch this one before you get that one and there’s no magic spell for getting around that.