In 1963, Marvel Comics debuted a new hero, Dr. Stephen Strange. Created by artist Steve Ditko, Strange’s adventures reflected the growing curiosity among American youth about Eastern philosophies and mystical powers.
Now, Disney’s Marvel Studios has released “Doctor Strange” under the guidance of director and co-writer Scott Derrickson, a lifelong fan of the Strange comics. For Derrickson, the series’ appeal lies in “the notion that the universe is a profoundly mysterious place.” Working with top acting and creative talents and some of the best special effects houses, Derrickson has brought an entertaining live-action version of Strange’s origin story to the screen.
Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant but egotistical neurosurgeon, has a highly successful career until a distracted driving crash leaves him with permanent hand damage. He seeks a solution via experimental medical procedures but Western medicine fails him. When Strange investigates how a patient with an incurable spine injury recovered, the man (Benjamin Bratt) directs Strange to the mysterious Kamar-Taj for the answer.
Strange discovers Kamar-Taj is a center for mystical, Eastern beliefs and training located in Nepal. While he desperately wants a cure, Strange’s Western medical training also causes him to scoff at mystical beliefs. The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Kamar-Taj’s leader, challenges Strange’s arrogance by sending his spirit on a scary yet fascinating journey through various dimensions. This experience shatters Strange’s resistance, beginning his training in the mystic arts. When Kamar-Taj and three international centers of power are threatened by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former pupil of The Ancient One, Strange must choose between returning to his surgical career or protecting the world from dark forces.
The creative team and cast of “Doctor Strange” bring the various dimensions of Strange’s adventure to the screen with a dynamic, visually impressive style. Multiple special effects teams created fascinating CG images including energy mandalas, out-of-body experiences, and kaleidoscopic divisions of cities and streets. The work done to bring the Cloak of Levitation to life is especially well done and will make any fan of Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak want one of these, too. Michael Giacchino’s score reinforces the scenery, ramping up the excitement during action sequences and adding an Eastern theme to scenes in Nepal and the end title CG animations.
“Doctor Strange” benefits from clearly defined characters presented by an excellent cast. Cumberbatch’s Strange is egotistical until humbled. Popular already for his starring role in the BBC’s “Sherlock,” Cumberbatch once again accesses a highly intellectual character and adds a touch of smooth charm to the doctor.
Rachel McAdams’ Dr. Christine Palmer balances Strange’s arrogance. Her caring nature wins audience empathy along the way. Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One is coolly contained and wise. And, as Mordor, loyal follower of The Ancient One, Chiwetel Ejiofor produces yet another performance where one glance conveys a range of emotion.
The script by Jon Spaihts, director Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill inserts humor at just the right points, lightening the tone and making Strange more relatable. One character who hopefully will get more screen time in the inevitable sequel is Wong (Benedict Wong). Originally introduced in the 1960s comics as Strange’s valet and sidekick, 2016’s Wong is the librarian at Kamar-Taj. In charge of the most mystical and powerful ancient texts, Wong’s deadpan reaction to Strange’s humor heightens the gags.
Sci-fi/ adventure audiences will find “Doctor Strange” a satisfying addition to the Disney/Marvel universe. Marvel fans will enjoy seeing founder Stan Lee in his on-screen cameo. And, they’ll want to wait for the end credits to see Strange’s conversation with another popular Marvel super hero.