The last ten years have proved that the world’s hugest market is for comic book movies, and contrasting only a small detractor group that despises them. Doctor Strange, in years to come, should be a recommended title for those who hate Marvel movies but find this to be the one exception. As for me, I’ve at times liked some comic book movies, I have grown tired of many that had recycled plots, and have been bored to tears on a few occasions (particularly “Avenger: The Age of Ultron”). This time, I can report there is a reprieve.
“Doctor Strange” doesn’t tie into all the usual Marvel gimmicks, and doesn’t cave in to all the arbitrarily referencing other Marvel characters. It has a stand-alone story, a paradoxical hero, and it’s acted by Benedict Cumberbatch with a refreshing sense of human frailty (it’s not ground-breaking acting, and yet, it is like a jazz riff on his smug genius “Imitation Game” performance, and so, I’m impressed). And while I usually think most Marvel movies could be cut by at least 45 minutes, there was only about 10 minutes of unnecessary fat to this one.
The special effects, most remarkably, are berserk – which I love! They don’t seem cribbed from the typical Marvel Studios computer program, they are largely outside of the conventional norm. There is a bending of reality and cities that fold like origami that is lifted from “Inception.” Not a bad borrowing point. There is also a wormhole of sorts in the deep universe that recalls 1980’s outer space adventures, or maybe recalls “The Yellow Submarine” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (both from 1968). Or perhaps – here’s a nod to something too obscure for the target audience – it reminded me of 1980’s “Altered States!”
Also refreshing: Nothing here boils down to a demolition derby within a major metropolis – goddammit, we’ve seen nothing but that since Michael Bay’s “Transformers” (2007) and in just about every “X-Men” movie, not to mention thirteen other Marvel titles.
In a very coherent story set-up, Cumberbatch plays a brilliant neurosurgeon who loses everything in a car accident. He will never be able to use his hands again, not unless he comes up with a cure himself. Someone leads him on a trek to Nepal to try holistic medicine which, in time, he relinquishes to. God bless, the early Nepal footage is photographed like a foreign film, not a commercial blockbuster! Excuse me, I digress.
Tilda Swinton plays the Ancient One who has lived perhaps centuries, and she can teach him that it’s not his hands that need healed but his spirit to be realigned. The “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” tutelage scenes between Uma Thurman as a protégé and a wise master were better, but there’s some mirthful mystical mojo happening that gives us a good time. Chiwetel Ejiofor also registers effectively as one of the disciples, although I wish it didn’t do the Marvel thing at the end where he crinkles his eyes, hinting (Spoiler Alert) he’s drifting to the dark side.
Of course, there is a villain named Kaecilius (try saying that, you can’t). Mads Mikkelsen doesn’t do a bad job – he can insinuate dark compulsion with facial tics very easily – but his mystical warrior, or whatever you want to regard him as (he’s from another dimension, or something), isn’t exactly a three-shaded character. Nor does he talk much. Kaecilius wants to live forever, and I’m not sure why he can’t just do that without overthrowing The Ancient One and her minions to their deaths. Doctor Strange, with new learned magic and fighting skills, decides to take this villain down because he kind of, uh, objects to his ideology.
Understanding the character’s motivations is a bit creaky, I guess it’s too much to ask that to be one of the film’s strong points. But I loved the morphing of reality, the teleportation tricks reminiscent of Carrie White, and even cared about Cumberbatch’s arc of spiritual change. Doctor Strange is a thinking superhero… scratch that. Doctor Strange is a thinking character, a man who has undergone spiritual crisis and a change of faith. And there’s even screen time invested to get us engaged with his evolved relationship with former fellow doctor and love interest Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams, just fine). And while the Avengers are mentioned briefly, I’m very happy that Doctor Strange is not obsessed with them.
Directed by somewhat of a lucky outsider who evidently got I’m guessing 90 percent freedom to do the movie his own way, Scott Derrickson (“Sinister,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”).
115 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
ACTION-ADVENTURE / MARVEL COMICS LORE / WEEKEND AFTERNOON MOVIE
Film Cousins: “Altered States” (1980); “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” (2004); “Iron Man” (2008); “Inception” (2010).