1 hour, 55 minutes
Marvel Comics, due to a series of ill-advised deals, sold off the film rights to its most popular characters to Sony, Twentieth Century Fox and others. Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four were all out of reach when the comic book company opened its own movie studio. As a result, they had to make stars out of second tier heroes like Iron Man, Thor, and even Ant-Man.
As anyone knows who’s any kind of comic book fan at all, Marvel Studios has done very well with their limited stable of characters, even to the point of regaining Spider-Man from Sony who hasn’t seemed to be able make any money off the webslinger in recent years. Marvel reaches even deeper into its vault this week with “Doctor Strange,” one of the weirdest and trippiest of its heroes.
Benedict Cumberbatch brings his A game as Dr. Stephen Strange, world-renowned neurosurgeon who’s ego is perhaps the only thing larger than his intellect. Strange is the classic rich, smart guy tool. Unfortunately for him, however, a terrifying car wreck takes it all away. His hands are crushed and not even a multitude of surgeries can bring back his fine motor skills.
A broken man, Strange journeys to Tibet, seeking a kind of last ditch healing from a mysterious figure named The Ancient One, played by the marvelously alien Tilda Swinton. Much to the good doctor’s dismay, however, the healing that is offered is much more of the spiritual kind. The monks who dwell in the sanctum of the Ancient One practice a mystical brand of martial art drawing energy from hidden dimensions to produce, for lack of a better word, magic.
When Strange is finally convinced that this mystical energy is real, he focuses his considerable mind on mastering it, first by following the arcane rules, but then by flaunting them. Complicating matters are a group of disaffected ex-monks, zealots who believe in a considerably darker power. Their messiah is Dormammu, the vast ruler of an ever expanding patch of darkness where pain and fear reign supreme.
Armed with forbidden knowledge, these dissident sorcerers mean to bring down the Ancient One and open our universe to destruction. It will be up to Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme, to stand against the doom.
I suppose it comes as no surprise, but I really enjoyed “Doctor Strange.” Never a faithful reader of the comic, I did, however, pick it up on occasion and always enjoyed the cosmic, far-reaching adventures of the character. Cumberbatch is great in the role, but after playing Sherlock Holmes, Khan, and Alan Turing, I wonder if he isn’t getting typecast playing aloof geniuses. Maybe that’s just him.
The cast is well filled out by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo and Benedict Wong as Wong, fellow sorcerers, and Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, Strange’s lady love.
Topping it all off is Swinton, who, again, plays against type as The Ancient One, a character that in the comics was an aged Asian man, not a small androgynous woman. Swinton is great because she can so effortlessly be otherworldly, a characteristic that serves the world of Doctor Strange well.
A lot has been made of how grounded the Marvel movies are. Not in a grim and gritty way, but more in terms of logic. “Iron Man” didn’t have magic, it had a resourceful guy who could build robots very well. “Thor” kind of introduced the idea of magic, but called it science and explained it away. Things started to get weird with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and they go even further here. There are efforts to explain the magic in terms of logic and science here, too, but as Strange wanders further in the infinite multi-verse, we are treated to bizarre scenes that defy explanation. I’m glad to see the Marvel Universe expanding into these strange corners — “Captain America” is fun, but it can be a bit too serious, don’t you think?
“Doctor Strange” succeeds on every level. Funny, exciting, mystical and thrilling, I was completely engaged. Sure, there are moments that are a little silly — the sentient cloak is cool for a minute, but then becomes awkward comic relief. And sure, the effects kind of take over for a little bit and lose a little of their impact, simply due to repetition.
But I feel like, overall, “Strange” is trying new things. There is the requisite superhero scene of mass destruction here, but “Strange” upends it in a creative way that manages to retain the excitement. Doctor Strange is certainly an interesting addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Cumberbatch is a great actor to have in the role. I’ll be really interested to see how they begin to tie a lot of these disparate elements like Strange and the Guardians together with the Avengers. Put me down for a ticket.
“Doctor Strange” is rated PG-13 for violence, language and sci-fi frights.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.