Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” follows the story of world-famous neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange who, in his quest for healing after a horrific car accident, discovers powerful magic in a mysterious place known as Kamar-Taj—the front line of a battle against unseen dark forces bent on destroying our reality.
Doctor Strange is the first Marvel movie named after the lead character’s real name. That is, in this film Benedict Cumberbatch starts out playing a regular, if very skilled, neurosurgeon named Stephen Strange; if it was named after his superhero title we’d be watching Sorcerer Supreme – though that’s a title that so far he’s only earned in the comics. Just to hammer it home, his name is a running joke throughout this film. First he can’t get medical procedures named after him, then people think “strange” is what he’s calling his situation, plus he’s constantly reminding people that he’s a doctor and should be referred to as such. If all this seems like a pretty thin way to distinguish one superhero from any other, remember that Marvel currently has well over a dozen near-identical guys running around: a wacky name is clearly all you need to stand out to stand out in that crowd.
The traditional Marvel template is in full effect here and it kicks in early and hard. While in the comics (created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee; Lee has a cameo, Ditko, who is still making comics outside of Marvel, does not), Doctor Strange starts out as arrogant verging on cruel, this version is basically Tony Stark 2.0: a self-centred guy who’s charming – mostly towards ER doctor and friend-with-maybe-benefits Christine Palmer (Rachael McAdams) – and good with a wisecrack. Then a car accident mangles his hands, and despite throwing cash and medical experts at them, it seems like his days performing surgery are over. Increasingly desperate, he follows a trail east, ending up in Nepal. There he’s saved from thieves by Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who takes him to meet The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). She then literally beats (okay, punches) his materialistic world-view out of him.
With his third eye now open, Strange dedicates himself to mystic teachings and rapidly rises through the ranks. But does he want to use his new powers for good, or is he just interested in fixing his hands and going back to his old life? And with Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former pupil of The Ancient One, now killing sorcerers as part of his scheme to contact the Dread Dormammu, destroy the Earth’s immune system and drag the planet into a Dark Dimension, is sticking around really the best thing for his health?
With Strange pretty much a good guy from the start, his character arc is minimal and kind of muddled; there’s what seems to be a big character moment half-way through where his desire to save lives is positioned as a stumbling block to his fighting Kaecilius… only this desire was never made clear before, as his medical career seemed more about flashy showing off and making a name for himself. And while his eventual fighting style is more about smarts than simply killing bad guys, the link is never made clear – it’s like the payoff scene where he realises he can defeat them without having to kill them was cut for time.
"Putting an Asian actor into a “wise teacher in a far-away land” role would have perpetuated hoary clichés about mystical Orientals; casting Swinton (and explicitly identifying her version of the character as Celtic) at least avoids that trap."
Fortunately Cumberbatch has charm to spare. He does an excellent job of conveying Strange’s anguish after his accident and gives off real warmth in his scenes with pretty much everyone, making Strange a real asset to the Marvel universe. Everyone else is stuck playing second fiddle but they generally make the most of what they’re given; Mikkelsen gets one good speech that actually makes his evil scheme seem reasonable, McAdams is fun as the befuddled love interest and Ejiofor… will hopefully get to do more in future films.
Casting Swinton, who gives an ethereal but somewhat undistinguished performance as The Ancient One, was controversial at the time. Casting the traditionally Asian character was basically a lose-lose situation for Marvel. Putting an Asian actor into a “wise teacher in a far-away land” role would have perpetuated hoary clichés about mystical Orientals; casting Swinton (and explicitly identifying her version of the character as Celtic) at least avoids that trap. Then again, Librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) is pretty close to the standard version of The Ancient One, so there’s clearly a fallback position in place.
The big point of difference designed to distinguish this from other Marvel fare is the visuals. Director Scott Derrickson (mostly known for low budget horror like Sinister and Deliver Us From Evil) sets the magic battles in backdrops where the landscape (usually urban or indoors) constantly multiplies and folds in on itself. Together with a psychedelic sequence where Strange is flung through dimensions (including falling through his own eye), they’re the big visual takeaway from this film. But the fights themselves are more of the same, as the magic users mostly just conjure up spears and whips to attack each other with. It’s the problem this film has throughout: for every element that’s original or entertaining, there’s something bland or dull there to balance it out.