Doctor Strange was the first comic book character that I loved beyond just fantasizing about flying, or being super-strong or fast. I loved him for existential reasons. I mean, I was a kid so it wasn’t like I understood it that way at the time, but I was drawn to the way he saw into realms that no other “superhero” could. He protected the world from invisible threats, and that fascinated me. The idea that he spent day after day risking his life to safeguard the world from things it never even knew existed, and it was mostly a thankless responsibility. I also was drawn to how he earned his powers through a process of learning to open his mind, rather than just through some accident or experiment. To add on top of all that the fact that he spent his entire life as an arrogant prick before being humbled by an accident and then going on to be the Sorcerer Supreme… It was like this “Saul to Paul” story, and for a kid who grew up in church, that resonated with me. (Also, his real first name is Stephen, and I’m pretty narcissistic so…)
Before I go any further, I will say that, while this isn’t a spoiler review and I will not reveal any specific plot points from the film, there will be some vague references and generalizations, as well as a few comparisons, that could still divulge more than you want to know. Read on at your own risk.
Film Synopsis: “Dr. Stephen Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) life changes after a car accident robs him of the use of his hands. When traditional medicine fails him, he looks for healing, and hope, in a mysterious enclave. He quickly learns that the enclave is at the front line of a battle against unseen dark forces bent on destroying reality. Before long, Strange is forced to choose between his life of fortune and status or leave it all behind to defend the world as the most powerful sorcerer in existence.”
The film is pretty much a straightforward origin story (think Captain America: The First Avenger). We learn about the threat the motivates the second and third acts, and we meet Stephen Strange and get a sense of how incomparably talented he is as a surgeon and as an egotistical dick. Then we follow him on his journey through humility to reclaim his former glory, but along the way he realizes he’s destined for so much more.
I understand that the basic plot structure and story development feel a little… safe… for some people, but I comprehend it a little differently. Remember I mentioned “Saul to Paul” in the intro? Well, if you’re not familiar with that reference I’ll explain. The Paul spoken of is the Paul from the Bible. The one who wrote anywhere from 8 – 13 books of it (depending on who you ask). The story is that, before becoming a passionate apostle for Jesus Christ, Paul was named Saul and actually spent his life punishing those who claimed to follow Christ until one day he’s blinded and hears the voice of God telling him to quite being such a dick (I’m paraphrasing here). He then goes on to be what some would say was the greatest evangelist of the Christian gospel. The parallels between his story and the one given to Stephen Strange are quite apparent (and I would imagine that it could be on purpose, but that’s something you’d have to ask Stan “The Man” Lee). Stephen is a man of great talent, who puts his entire trust in science and reason, but finds himself crippled and unable to continue living the life he’s built. He goes in search of anything that could restore him but ends up discovering a whole new, more purposeful fate. I’m not staying it’s an exact replica, but there are many similarities.
So, you’re probably thinking, “Dude, what’s with the f***ing bible story?” First, you should be ashamed of yourself for using that off-color language. Second, I’m getting to it, so don’t get your f***ing panties in a wad. The main reason I spent so much time on the Biblical comparisons was to better explain why Scott Derrickson was not just the best choice for director, he was the only choice. You see, Scott, from what I can tell, seems to have a legalistically religious background, which is something I share in common with him. From Wikipedia: “He graduated from Biola University (the Bible Institute Of Los Angeles) with a B.A. in Humanities, with an emphasis on literature and philosophy, and a B.A. in Communications, with an emphasis on film, and a minor in theological studies.” (Afterwards, he went on to earn a Masters in film production from USC School of Cinematic Arts.) He made The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which isn’t like any other demonic possession horror film out there, and he also made the tragically underrated Deliver Us From Evil. As I mentioned in my review for the later, Scott is very, very good at blending the supernatural with reality because he genuinely comprehends both of them differently than the average person, and Doctor Strange is proof that he perceives the possibilities and literal application of their coexistence. Scott also grasps the nature of Stephen Strange better than any other director that could’ve been considered because I think he sees those same biblical similarities that initially captivated me.
I understand that by using words like “biblical” and “religious” I could potentially be frightening you on what awaits in the film. I assure you, as someone who is no longer religious in any way, there is no propaganda or indoctrination. I just wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to show you why this guy was the clear choice to take on the project.
OK, so moving on to the acting performances. They’re all fantastic. There isn’t one weak link in the entire cast. I rarely make the right call when it comes to speculating on who should take on a comic book character role, but I actually called Benedict Cumberbatch early on and he didn’t let me down. I’d even go so far as to say that this is his least Cumberbatch-ian performance to date. I know that his Sherlock Holmes would probably make you think he’s perfect for Strange but they really are very different characters. The way he plays Sherlock is more smart and socially awkward. Sherlock isn’t really an asshole, he’s just so brilliant that his intellect dominates his personality. Stephen Strange, while also very brilliant and intellectual, really is just an asshole. Like, he could choose not to be, but he doesn’t. Benny (I call him that), also nails the emotional range for the character. There’s a moment when Strange is meeting The Ancient One for the first time and he begins to realize that, even though he was told to forget everything he thinks he knows, this is nothing like what he imagined it to be and he begins to lash out in a way that anyone who’s ever lost hope or faith can relate to 100%. In that scene, Cumberbatch makes you feel in your own soul the level of hopelessness that Strange is experiencing. I was moved by it.
Aside from ol’ Benny, there’s Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo, who in the comics is mostly Strange’s adversary but here we see him in more of a co-mentor role. He does a great job of playing the strong compatriot to Strange’s ever-questioning student. Tilda Swinton really shines as The Ancient One. She’s wise and unaffected by Strange’s skepticism, but even though you know there’s more to her than what’s on the surface there’s still more you don’t expect hiding underneath that. The character’s layers run deep and she shows each of them to us with authority and grace. Mads Mikkelsen plays Kaecilius, a zealous former student of The Ancient One. I love Mikkelsen in pretty much everything he’s in, and he serves his role well here. Kaecilius is harded and angry, he fights with merciless fury, but there is a moment that you briefly see the vulnerability that forged the path he chose and it’s easily Mikkelsen’s best performance of the whole movie. I’ve heard people say that Rachel McAdams’ role as Strange’s colleague, and former girlfriend, Christine Palmer was underused, but I argue that she served a very crucial element of the film, which is Strange’s remorse for his past behavior. They already have a rocky past, but after his car accident and ensuing spiral into depression, he treats her very cruelly and comes to regret that. Her forgiveness is a key element in shaping him into the man he becomes by the end. Easily the best standout in the film, though, is Benedict Wong as… well, Wong. In the comics Wong is more of a manservant/butler type, which is an unfortunate representation of the time in which the story was first created, but here he’s the librarian for Kamar-Taj, which is the name of the monastery where The Ancient One and the other sorcerers train and reside. He’s a no-nonsense dude with an invaluable wealth a knowledge. Also, he helps to make the movie so damn funny. His serious, “straight-man” performance to Cumberatch’s “awkward white guy” moments make for comedy gold.
Probably the most compelling aspect of the film is the visuals. There are no words in any language that I’m aware of that when strung together could accurately and sufficiently describe what you’re seeing in this movie, but by the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth I’m gonna try. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything like the cinematography in this film, and I’m pretty certain that no film up to this point has ever been as ambitions as it is with the CGI. There’s never a moment where you think, “That looks fake.” It all looks completely real, every rotating building and collapsing floor. Even the mind-bending alternate realms have this structure and layering about them that make them feel almost believable. There are moments where you have to look down at the floor or at something else in the theater just to remind yourself that no one spiked your slushie or Twizzlers with LSD. It’s that hypnotizing. (I imagine that anyone who dropped acid while listening to “Led Zeppelin IV” or “Dark Side of The Moon” has already encounter most of what’s on display here.)
I saw the film in the IMAX 3-D format, and I know that most people don’t love the price tag that comes along with that, I sure don’t, but I would strongly encourage you to see it this way. I don’t think I’ve ever recommended the IMAX 3-D over the standard format in all of my time writing reviews, but this one was made to be seen this way. It’s not just a movie, it’s an experience. There were times that I found myself completely entranced with the depth and scope of the film. As someone who puts zero faith or interest in industry award ceremonies, if this movie doesn’t at least get some recognition for it’s cinematic visual achievements, then there is absolutely no justice in the world.
All-in-all, Doctor Strange is a visual achievement, not just within the Marvel Cinematic Universe but the whole of film in general. The acting is superb, with Benedict Cumberbatch delivering what is maybe his most diverse performance to date, and the rest if the cast standing very strong alongside him. Scott Derrickson and Marvel Studios have crafted a magnificent film that threatens to consume you with astonishing visuals, but keeps you firmly grounded with a story that attempts to imagine the perseverance of the human condition on a realistically emotional level.
Also, when you head out to see the movie this weekend, make sure you stick around after the credits start to roll because their are 2 scenes you’ll miss if you leave early, and they’re both clues to what the MCU has in store going forward…