I admit it, I had heard of Dr. Strange prior to seeing the trailer for the eponymous film adaption, but I knew very little about the character who has been around for over five decades. Despite being a prominent member of the Marvel's Silver Age of comic book heroes of the 1960s, Dr. Strange's popularity ebbed and flowed in the decades that followed, including being reduced to a supporting character in the 2000s. There were various attempts to bring the character's story to the big screen and small, including a failed television pilot in 1978.
Luckily for fans of the comic and cinema fans in general, the long wait to bring Dr. Strange to the big screen has paid off. Speaking as someone who has seen every Marvel movie in the theater since Sam Raimi's original Spiderman (I know it’s not part of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe), Dr. Strange is one of the best Marvel movies to ever be released.
Mind over body
If you aren't familiar with the comic and have found the commercials slightly confusing (I did at first), Dr. Strange tells the story of the arrogant neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who regularly spouts music trivia while in the operating room. The know-it-all doctor's world is rocked when a horrific car accident damages the nerve endings in his hands and costs him his career.
Following a painful recovery process, Strange travels to the mystical place of Kamar-Taj (near Kathmandu) in search of a way to regain the full use of his hands. While there, Strange meets Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who introduces him to a spiritual leader known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).
After much convincing (begging), the Ancient One agrees to teach the doctor Eastern Philosophy and the notion that he must heal his mind in order to heal his body. These sequences, filled with wonderful psychedelic-tinged special effects, show Strange being transported through space and time in stunning fashion. Eventually, Strange learns to cast spells and travel through different dimensions on his own courtesy of his "sling ring."
Strange and Mordo, a gifted sorcerer in his own right, go on to use their magical powers to fight the Ancient One's former pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who wants to merge Earth with the Dark Dimension—a hellish world run by Strange's great comic nemesis Dormammu. The plot is linear and simple to follow and much less convoluted than let's say Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Mind-bending special effects
And what ensues is a special effects extravaganza, which is at times dizzying, but still mind-blowing. The bulk of the visual credit goes to director Scott Derrickson. Derrickson, who is primarily known for helming horror films like the Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister, creates a world unlike we have seen in other Marvel Cinematic Universe titles. This is especially true in the scenes early on in the film where the Ancient One sends Strange though various dimensions in time, which is reminiscent of the famous "Star Gate" scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. As for the "Dark Dimension," which is unveiled in the film's conclusion, it looks like a college dorm room black light poster come-to-life.
Not to mention, there are several Inception-esque scenes in which city buildings fold in on themselves as time and space are bent by Kaecilius and his crew. And despite the awe-inspiring special effects, the action never becomes too convoluted where the viewer cannot decipher what's going on.
Aside from its dazzling special effects, which showcase New York City in a way that no other comic book movie has, the film's superb cast truly sets it apart. That isn't to say that Marvel's films haven't featured solid actors and "movie stars," but Dr. Strange's ensemble cast touts four Oscar nominations among them, including one win (Tilda Swinton). Collectively, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, and Mads Mikkelsen add a level of sophistication and gravitas to their roles, which is unparalleled in the Marvel canon.
Anchoring the cast is the always wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, The Imitation Game), who adds a layer of depth and emotion to Strange that isn't present in Marvel's more well-known title characters. He also does a solid American accent, although at times he does sound like Hugh Laurie in House.
Other highlights are Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen ( Hannibal, Casino Royale), who was born to play a Marvel villain, and Oscar winner Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton, We Need to Talk About Kevin), who delivers the film's standout performance. The grace and ethereal quality that Swinton brings to the screen is a pleasure to watch.
Compared to the other entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Dr. Strange is a much-needed change of pace. The level of acting will satisfy non-comic book fans, while the action sequences and special effects will please Marvel fans. And there are also dashes of Eastern mysticism and trippy psychedelia to satisfy the 1960s burn out demographic. Did I mention the film's score features Pink Floyd's 1967 deep cut "Interstellar Overdrive"? Surely, you're sold by now.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
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