The House That Iron Man built must find a way to replace Robert Downey, Jr. That’s a challenge that DC doesn’t have to worry about. Counting films alone, there have been 5 Batmen in cinemas in my lifetime. But for less iconic characters, Marvel relies on their deep bench of charismatic actors to endear their heroes to moviegoers. This is even evident in the newest version of Marvel Studios’ opening fanfare, which prominently features the actor’s faces. No one cares about Ant-Man or Black Widow, but they already love Paul Rudd and Scarlett Johansson. So enter Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange.
Like Iron Man, Strange is goateed, quippy, and arrogant, the best at what he does. And while magic replaces the heavy metal of Tony Stark’s workshop, Strange may end up filling the role of ‘too cool for this and expressing it acerbically’ in Marvel’s larger crossover films. Of which Doctor Strange is not. The most self-contained film since Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange pushes the Marvel Cinematic Universe tapestry further into the unknown and the “weird,” all while leaning heavily on their successful superhero origin formula.
When we meet Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch), he is a world-class surgeon. Arrogant as well as brusque, the good doctor is ready to berate anyone for not being as good as he is, including his ex, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). After a horrible car accident, Strange awakens to find his hands, essential to his identity as a surgeon, have been made completely useless by the accident.
After running out of options, Strange travels to Kathmandu to find the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), whom he believes can heal him. Rather he finds a school for mystic sorcerers who can draw on powers from other dimensions. He befriends a fellow student of the Ancient One, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the school’s librarian, Wong (Benedict Wong), and learns of the Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student who seeks out forbidden magic.
And that’s more or less the whole film. Doctor Strange is aggressively paced and lighter on plot than any other Marvel film, which helps it stands apart. Director (and co-writer) Scott Derrickson realizes that audiences are well-versed in how superhero origin stories work, and so there is no reason not to speed that journey up and get to the cool magic stuff we all want to see. This is easily the most effervescent Marvel film to date, which is kind of a relief. The film more than makes up for its threadbare plotting with the incredible visuals, and it manages to stick the landing with an ending that feels unique among current superhero fare.
Doctor Strange boasts an amazing cast, and while Cumberbatch doesn’t do much we haven’t seen from him before (except a questionable-at-best American accent- they should have let the character be British), and while not as warm and charming as Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark, the film also uses the character in a way that fits the performance. Strange is not usually the one making quips, or if he is, they aren’t funny. The funniest bits of the film come from other characters like Mordo or Wong reacting to Strange’s attempts at humor, though Strange’s enchanted Cloak of Levitation gets more than its share of moments as well.
Tilda Swinton has never given a bad performance, and I can’t imagine another actor striking the balance between mysterious aloofness and playful impatience that she exudes from the screen. The film opens with her, and for a large part of the film, this is almost as much the Ancient One’s movie as it is Strange’s (“Do you think this is about you?” she asks him at one point). Above anything else, it is Swinton’s presence that gives Doctor Strange its unique flavor. Chiwetel Ejiofor is also great as Mordo, and actually has the most interesting character arc through the film. Given the character’s comic book history, it will be great to see the relationship between him and Strange continue to evolve. Benedict Wong, of course, is welcome in any movie. Mads Mikkelsen gives a wonderful performance (helped by having only eye makeup and not a full on replacement face, like Christopher Eccleston or Lee Pace) but Kaecilius isn’t in enough of the film to feel like he truly matters.
If anything, the film should have spent more time with the supporting cast, especially Rachel McAdams’ character. Christine barely gets any screen time, let alone a character arc. McAdams is a most welcome addition to the Marvel Universe, which consistently lacks good female roles, especially with the seeming departure of Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman. It’s a shame her role is even smaller than theirs in the first Iron Man and Thor movies.
But the real star here is the visuals, which is the first time this has ever been true in a Marvel film. Up to this point, they have been solid, but not stunning save for some of the ‘de-aging’ they’ve been doing in recent films. Doctor Strange may crib some of the reality folding from Inception but it goes even further, playing with time and spatial orientation that is both visually fascinating and satisfying as action. The best sequence in the film is the first time the Ancient One shows Doctor Strange the multiverse, pushing him to flying through countless forms of abstract imagery, as it is the closest the film comes to the psychedelically influenced art by original Doctor Strange artist Steve Ditko.
There are certainly some nitpicks to be had, but they almost all boil down to, “it’s a movie, it doesn’t have to try and reflect reality.” Derrickson plays up the New Age mumbo jumbo at the center of the film in a way that is purposefully vague and contradictory but doesn’t beg to be picked apart. However, The beginning of the film seems to be placed right at the same time as Captain America: Civil War, but doesn’t tell us how long Strange spends studying the mystic arts before the end of the film. This won’t bother most while watching the film, but is important for super nerds tracking the timeline of the Marvel films.
The other highlight is the music. Doctor Strange finally brings fan favorite composer Michael Giacchino into the fold, resulting in the best Marvel score since 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. While it’s not one of Giacchino’s best scores, weaving together disparate styles and nailing some of the more fanfare-type moments (think John Williams!) seems to be his specialty, giving the film a more memorable score as well as a heightened feeling.
The music and the visuals make Doctor Strange feel like Marvel’s most cinematic film in a while. It doesn’t have the scale of the Avengers films, but shooting on location (London, Nepal, New York, and Hong Kong play themselves), the score, and impressive visuals makes Doctor Strange feel like a movie in ways that Civil War feels like a long television episode. That’s not a slight against those films given the state of television today, but anything Marvel does to try to make each of these films feel special, and worth a trip to the theater over binging Westworld, is a big plus, especially for a movie as fun as this one with an unfamiliar character.
Doctor Strange opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.