Doctor Strange is deliciously exotic: a fresh aberration from Marvel’s line-up of calculated brawn and brawl. Directed by Scott Derrickson, the film delves into a mystical multiverse, of space-time continuums, and magic wielded from ancient mythos – quite an unlikely sojourn for neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange, the movie’s titular man of science. Played by the charismatic Benedict Cumberbatch (with a convincing American accent), the neurosurgeon finds himself at a paradigm shift, following a career-ending accident that rendered his hands impotent, immune to treatment available in Western medicine. He travels to Kathmandu in search for other forms of healing, eventually learning the mystic arts taught by the Ancient One (portrayed by the ferociously quiescent Tilda Swinton), along with the otherworldly dimensions that come with it.
It is an origin story that is both familiar and different from the other comic book adaptations. We see a man deconstructed – a likely comparison of Dr. Strange to multi-hyphenate Tony Stark shouldn’t be amiss. Stephen Strange is stripped bare of his worldly successes, and carves out something larger than himself. We see a student being trained by his master – a trope that affords entertainment despite its repetition. The training sequence, alongside the film’s numerous action sequences, veers off the grid unlike anything Marvel has conjured up before.
The visuals. It is inevitable that people will remember this film for what they have seen. Audiences will fall into a rabbit hole of trippy worlds unknown, and will marvel at the gargantuan scale of cityscapes folded, deconstructed, destroyed, and assembled into such dizzying configurations an origami book will be put to shame. It is astounding, the limits that were pushed by the art and visual effects department (and the budget the fuelled it). Unlike Christopher Nolan’s more subdued and practical Inception – another film that will repeatedly draw comparison – Doctor Strange holds nothing back. Manipulation of time certainly creates a crowd-pleasing symphony of visuals (some in the colorful nightscape of Hong Kong no less), and combined with Michael Giacchino’s lavish, almost-Baroque score, masks any wrongs that may have gone awry.
It is not a perfect film. As far as the writing goes, the character development of Doctor Strange is half-baked. A man transformed by his own volition, relieved from his previous beliefs, yet possesses an unbreakable moral core is a storyline that has been recycled through and through in these adaptations. Unfortunately, Stephen Strange only battles external demons. His internal struggle and emotional turmoil seem superficial at times. Romance comes at bay in the form of Christine Palmer (played by the ageless Rachel McAdams) who is underused, despite being independent and a force to reckon with separate from Stephen Strange. The villains could have been more dangerous, without looking like something out of a Power Rangers episode. Once the film gains its momentum, it is therefore puzzling to see that there is nothing at stake for our titular character. These are quibbles the movie could do without, but can be tolerated.
Thankfully, the humor of this film, perhaps the funniest Marvel film yet, is a class act. We see the most endearing characters slip out of their usual demeanor without warning. Benedict Cumberbatch is charming and effortlessly funny. For a film that tackles the mystical in the modern world, its humor is harnessed to great effect when it tries to remind that Doctor Strange is within the same Marvel universe, and is still aligned with the current zeitgeist.
Doctor Strange is perhaps Marvel’s most ridiculously entertaining fare yet. There is something there and then something more, within the multiverses, the marriage of science and spirit, of possibilities considered, and those still existing (in a sequel or two), much like a shift in a kaleidoscope.