PhD, Neurosurgeon, fancy watch collector, and sorcerer supreme. With a resume like that, the very first step I’d take would be a reference check. An extensive one. Mr. Dr. Sorcerer Stephen Strange, PhD isn’t the most social character – but the Cloak seems to like him and that’s good enough for me. He’s one of those guys who excel at everything, and if I were his classmate I’d be a jealous super villain in the making. But as he is fictional and I get to witness his accelerated learning from the safe distance of a seat with a cup holder, I have to say… I rather like him.
Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) really is a doctor. A brilliant surgeon, in fact, who’s arrogantly picky about the patients he will treat. People seem to give him his space, and Strange is all the happier for it – unless they’re praising his genius, in which case he will certainly attend the award ceremony. One night while whipping around a rainy mountain road in his Lamborghini, passing cars on blind corners, talking on his phone, and swiping through images of brain scans, Strange gets into a terrible car accident. Go figure. His hands are swallowed by the dashboard and rendered scared, stiff, weak, and minimally responsive – a career death sentence for a surgeon. He tries every medical treatment he can think of but nothing works. As a last resort, Strange travels east following the rumour of a place that can heal the body by strengthening the mind. He finds The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) in Nepal, who opens his eyes (all three of them) to the mystical multiverse. The skeptical Doctor Strange spends every hour, waking and sleeping, studying magic, and like everything else he has ever attempted, Strange is a natural.
But in order for Doctor Strange to be a proper Marvel movie we need a crucial something: a villain with a narrow-minded scheme. The Ancient One has taught many students, and in keeping with story tradition, of course there’s one who “went bad”. It’s a classic Voldemort, Darth Vader, Ferris Bueller, situation. The ex-student, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), finds himself tempted by the dark side (explanation: the multiverse is full of infinite universes but only one has an atmosphere of “evil” and a geography of… space balls). Kaecilius steals pages from a book of time and plans to use their magic to surrender Earth to Dormammu, a disembodied head and the sole resident of the dark side dimension. Strange and his buddy, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), must hop through three gates that shield the earth (London, Hong Kong, and – of course – New York) to stop Kaecilius and his team from breaking down the barriers and letting Dormammu in. I – I think that’s it. Actually, I did a better job with that explanation than I thought I would. But if you’re still in the dark: Kaecilius has poison eye shadow and is bad, Dormammu is a CGI face and is worse, and Strange is the cocky cloaked hero who is impulsive. Everyone else jumps through portals rotating within their gravitational pull. I honestly think Doctor Strange will take a few viewings before everything is as crystal clear as the mirror dimension.
Did you know that Rachel McAdams is in this? Yeah! She plays the normal human! She’s so great. Not overly present in the grand scheme of things – but just so great.
While the characters are neat and Cumberbatch plays an uncanny Strange, the real point of Doctor Strange is the effects. Okay; a cloaked Cumberbatch and the effects. Think of Inception in a Force Awakens blender. It’s a little like staring down a kaleidoscope at a jedi riding Aladdin’s magic carpet. The whole point of the story is to pull dimensions together like layers. Not like worlds all neatly aligned in a hotel hallway; but more like a freshly poured, chaotic bowl of Cheerios. The effects take the scene and turn it upside down, rotating the floor to the ceiling around the unprepared characters. Everything folds together impossibly, but neatly. And then Marvel adds the time turner factor and you watch a bombed out street reparo itself.
Still, it wouldn’t be Marvel if it was just pretty and neat. To make it fit with this cinematic kingdom we also need a little chuckle. Most of the characters are a bit stiff – except for the Cape and the librarian, Wong (Benedict Wong). Yes I consider the Cape a character and no there’s nothing Wong with that.
Of course the medley of action, humour, heroic assent, and villains with no Step 2 beyond their goal all fits the superhero layout. But rather than Doctor Strange feeling like the same shtick we’ve seen a dozen times, it feels more like a missing puzzle piece. That’s the genius of Marvel’s studio freight train. Every new character isn’t trying to outdo the one that came before; he’s just the new kid in class. Like an exotic transfer student with magic powers and time control. Cumberbatch delivers poise, obsession, intelligence, and arrogance, and is the perfect fit for the Supreme Doctor. I look forward to seeing more of Doctor Strange as the freight train ploughs forward. 8/10.