Although Marvel Studios’ “Doctor Strange” offers very few insights into the childhood of its main character, applying what we know about bullying on American schoolyards, it’s safe to assume it wasn’t easy growing up with a name like Stephen Strange. Perhaps that explains the complex that has driven Strange (that rare superhero who keeps his name after acquiring his incredible new powers) to become such an arrogant New York neurosurgeon, flaunting his skills at work and his Lamborghini Huracán outside the office.
Cut from the same mold as playboys Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Bruce Wayne (Batman), Strange easily might have become world’s most insufferable superhero. But instead, it’s the very fact of this deeply insecure and wildly overcompensating character’s determination to prove himself — coupled with the setback by which texting while driving cripples his hands and very nearly derails him of that ambition — that makes “Doctor Strange” Marvel’s most satisfying entry since “Spider-Man 2,” and a throwback to M. Night Shyamalan’s soul-searching identity-crisis epic “Unbreakable,” which remains the gold standard for thinking people’s superhero movies.
Yes, this new project shares the same look, feel, and fancy corporate sheen as the rest of Marvel’s rapidly expanding Avengers portfolio, but it also boasts an underlying originality and freshness missing from the increasingly cookie-cutter comic-book realm of late. From this second-tier side character, the studio has created a thrilling existential dilemma in which its flawed hero’s personal search for purpose dovetails beautifully with forays into the occult New Age realm of magic and sorcery where Doctor Strange ultimately finds his calling.
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While producer Kevin Feige deserves credit for bringing a master plan to Marvel’s big-screen slate, recruiting A-list talent on both sides of the camera and holding them to aesthetic standards that unify the various projects, those parameters are starting to feel every bit as restrictive as real-world physics can be to less-than-super movies. Like the original pulp comics, which were printed with a standard four-color process that permitted a very limited palette, Marvel movies are all starting to look and sound the same, boasting bright primary colors, magic-hour lighting, and bombastic orchestral scores.
Generally speaking, there’s less room for directors to experiment when introducing new heroes, and yet Doctor Strange’s tangential standing within the Marvel canon allows a welcome degree of freedom, while the supernatural dimension of his gifts permits filmmaker Scott Derrickson to bend the rules a bit more than his peers — not enough, some would argue. Like “Spider-Man” director Sam Raimi, Derrickson hails from the world of schlock horror, where he made such seat-jumpers as “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “Sinister,” and here, he transitions smoothly to a far bigger canvas (so big that Imax audiences will benefit from more than an hour of footage captured on the company’s large-format digital cameras).
The key is an in-on-the-joke script, which Derrickson co-wrote with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill, that ingeniously navigates major plot potholes even as it saddles its actors with ludicrous dialogue. But what actors! As Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch sheds his British accent but not the attitude, which both attracts and repulses fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams, the most competent — and human — of Marvel’s window-dressing girlfriends).
After the accident, Strange seeks advice from a man named Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), who broke his back, but somehow learned to heal himself. Though skeptical at first, after meeting the former paraplegic on a basketball court, Strange takes his advice and heads east to Kathmandu, where he meets the Jedi-like Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his master, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Mordo is a fascinating character whose motives are every bit as complex as Strange’s. Those who wish there were more of him in the film would be advised to stick around through both post-credits bonus scenes.
Meanwhile, much has already been written about the casting of the white-skinned Swinton in a role originally conceived as an old Asian man (as if the world needs yet another Mister Miyagi/Pai Mei stereotype), when the only real disappointment there is that the practically extraterrestrial star wasn’t asked to play the title role — because who is stranger? Swinton already walks this earth in some sort of enlightened state, and it’s no far leap to accept her as an ageless oracle with the power to bend matter and slow time. The latter trick, which turncoat ex-disciple Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) uses for more nefarious purposes, lends the film a staggering visual effects innovation, in which the building-bending seen in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” is taken to an extreme that would blow even M.C. Escher’s mind.
Whereas we can generally intuit the “rules” that govern most superheroes and their powers, Doctor Strange’s New Age training puts us in a vulnerable place where seemingly anything can happen: One near-death ER sequence manages to be tense, hilarious, and exhilarating at the same time, while another on a hospital balcony is among Marvel’s most poignant. To counter whatever disorder might result, the film is unusually heavy on exposition, and yet Derrickson understands that’s it’s far more satisfying to show than to explain, impressing with one psychedelic sequence after another. Burn a bit of incense or something stronger before watching, and this already hyper-vivid 3D experience is liable to carry you away entirely, especially when Kaecilius proceeds to fold first staircases and later the streets of New York into an elaborate moving kaleidoscope, in which Doctor Strange proceeds to jump, slip, and slide like a pawn in an elaborate, multi-dimensional chess game.
While it’s frustrating that each of these movies must build to a generic showdown between our superhero and some all-powerful, earth-endangering supervillain, “Doctor Strange” takes that tedious inevitability and spins it off into an alternate Dark Dimension, where wit (both humor and intellect) prevails. That’s an especially apt solution for this particular hero, since he’s been robbed of physical strength: The car crash left Doctor Strange practically handicapped, forcing him to learn tricks and spells to compensate for his lost dexterity. Since his enemies are martial arts experts with post-“Matrix” abilities, he has no choice but to get creative, conjuring shields and teleportation portals from plain air. At one point, facing off against Kaecilius and his henchmen, Strange stumbles across the Cloak of Levitation, a magical cape that proactively comes to his defense, absorbing blows while giving him hints on how to escape the situation.
Such scenes may be good for spectacle, but Doctor Strange’s most fascinating battle is within himself, as he fights first to regain the use of his hands and later to overcome everything he has learned — not only about the laws of physics, but also the social conditioning that taught this workaholic that his self-worth was tied to a job he can no longer perform. The character is literally fighting for his life in this film, and Cumberbatch captures both his humbling and the subsequent recovery of confidence. Here is a man who cockily swore off being an emergency room surgeon because he wasn’t interested in saving one life at a time, only to be rendered useless by his injuries. So, while we might yawn at yet another threat to all mankind, “Doctor Strange” has been presented in such a way that this higher calling restores his ability to help the world entire. We understand that this calling matters to him, even if his motives remain a mystery.