'Doctor Strange' (Official trailer)
Benedict Cumberbatch becomes the first actor since Robert Downey Jr. to truly upgrade a superhero movie because of his sheer screen presence
Not unlike Downey’s Tony Stark, Cumberbatch’s master of mysticism Dr. Stephen Strange balances ego and humility, rage and humor. The star of TV’s “Sherlock” keeps this trippy, distinctive film from getting too wonky. Cumberbatch grounds the material even while levitating.
That’s because “Doctor Strange,” a Marvel stand-alone effort to rival “Iron Man,” is essentially a character study. Even while brimming with action, it never misses an opportunity to give its star moments of self-reflection.
Cumberbatch plays a New York neurosurgeon whose photographic memory and know-it-all drive have made him respected and wealthy, but hardly empathetic.
His career changes course after a car accident damages his hands and he can no longer operate. Cutting himself off from everyone, including a loyal co-worker and former flame (Rachel McAdams), Strange pursues alternative healing methods. This leads him to a monastery in Nepal, where he meets the stoic disciples Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong), and their master known only by the cryptic title the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).
(Marvel endured criticism for changing this comic book character from a Tibetan man to a British woman. One theory contends that a Tibetan in a marquee role would hurt the film’s box office in the ever-lucrative Chinese market.)
“Your intelligence has taken you far in life, but it will take you no further,” she tells Strange.
So she introduces him to the blend of pseudo-science and primordial magic that provides a “source code that shapes reality.”
It’s a difficult transition for the doctor. He must dismiss his own “stubbornness, arrogance and ambition” to learn arts that allow him to instantly teleport to another continent or project his spirit onto the astral plane.
Meanwhile, a former student named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) threatens both this clan and the rest of the world when he conjures forces that ought not be tampered with. As he picks off the Ancient One’s followers, it’s up to Doctor Strange to thwart a malevolent interdimensional menace.
Movie magic has become so normalized that it’s tough to impress audiences. If you’ve seen one thundering alien armada destroy a city, you’ve seen them all. “Doctor Strange” still relies on the digital effects game. But these effects intensify the story rather than bludgeon the viewer into blank indifference.
Director Scott Derrickson (“Sinister”) and his talented team deliver mind-blowing visions of warping reality. Buildings shift and crinkle in on themselves, “Inception”-style, inducing fight scenes that appear staged inside a gyrating M.C. Escher lithograph. Time runs backward and loops — and not in the dippy 1978 version of “Superman” way.
Perhaps the most memorable effect is Strange’s Cloak of Levitation. In addition to really completing the hero’s stylish get-up, this “fickle” red relic protects its wearer like a loyal Doberman, leading to some of the film’s best sight gags.
Since being introduced in 1963 by artist Steve Ditko (who co-created Spider-Man), Doctor Strange has remained “a different kind of super-hero” as his debut comic claimed. Marvel has turned into more of a cinematic brand these days, with Avengers and X-Men and other do-gooders crossing over to one another’s projects. This flick is no exception, containing obligatory references and guest appearances from its fellow champions — some effective, some not. Yet Derrickson’s screenplay (co-written with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill) constantly strives to embrace the “different” aspect of his sorcerer.
The exposition, the journey, the action staging, the hallucinogenic visuals. Everything builds to a powerhouse climax that in clever ways defies the “let’s have a million things attack and blow stuff up” method that drags down the third act of every non-“Guardians of the Galaxy” superhero blockbuster.
Or maybe the simple decision to cast Cumberbatch (a recent Oscar nominee for “The Imitation Game”) just plain pays off.
Whatever the reason, “Doctor Strange” lives up to its beguiling tagline: “The impossibilities are endless.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated PG-13. Time: 1:55.
3-D or not 3-D?
Few movies have benefited more from 3-D, which considerably enriches the already remarkable effects.