FILM REVIEW – DOCTOR STRANGE. With Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton. Written by Jon Spaihts and Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence. 115 minutes.
For those, like this reviewer, who grew up on DC Comics rather than Marvel, the debut of a Marvel character in a film means we start at square one. With all the superhero movie characters out there already, do we really need another one? As it turns out, the answer is yes. Through outstanding casting, splashy visuals, and some unexpected (and welcome) wit, DOCTOR STRANGE is easily the best of comic book movie of the year.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant and egotistical neurosurgeon who suffers a career-ending accident. In a search for a way to repair himself, he ends up in Nepal, under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). There he learns to master powers that are beyond those of most mortals, and has to decide whether to use it to try and return to his old life or to protect the Earth from forces that would destroy it. Making things complicated is a former disciple, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who is leading other renegades on the side of those destructive forces.
This is another origin film, but it doesn’t feel that way, because it establishes Strange’s character early on. We’re as curious and baffled as he is as he learns from the Ancient One and from those who work with her, such as Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), who guards the ancient knowledge. Those from his old life have somewhat less to do, with Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) faring best. Her character should be developed further in subsequent films. And yes, there will be more of Doctor Strange, as the two “Easter eggs” in the closing credits indicate.
If this was just another good-guy-with-super-powers-fighting-a-bad-guy-with-super-powers movie, it would be dull going. However, beyond the mythology, there’s also the stunning visuals which mix up several effects you may have seen before, but in new ways. Perhaps the most eye-popping is the turning of cityscapes into three-dimensional kaleidoscopic images which was used to good effect in “Inception.” They’ve upped the ante here making this a film in which there’s rarely a dull moment.
Since Strange–wonderfully played by Cumberbatch–is such a self-important character, the use of humor is surprising and comes up when we’re least expecting it. The strong cast is also a plus with the actors digging into their roles rather than appear to be slumming (such as Anthony Hopkins did in “Thor: The Dark World”). Even Benjamin Bratt, in a small but key role, plays it seriously enough that his character’s actions and choices matter to us. Ejiofor is outstanding as always, handling light and dramatic moments with equal strength, while Wong–whose librarian threatens to slip into cliché–turns him into someone who constantly surprises.
“Doctor Strange” takes care of the business of the origin story by telling us how the main character came to be while not forgetting to tell us an entertaining and exciting story. Considering how often this has been done badly (see–or rather, don’t see–the recent “Fantastic Four”), that’s no small accomplishment. With the promise that Doctor Strange will be back, this movie is the best big screen news for comic book fans in some time.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in early 2017. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.