Scott F. Evans
I owe Marvel Studios an apology. When Doctor Strange was announced a couple of years ago, I figured that this would be the one that wouldn’t work. The strike. The fumble. The air ball.
Dr. Strange has been around for more than fifty years in comic form, but he’s still relatively obscure to non-fans. In Marvel’s defense, this isn’t their first time at the rodeo. In 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy introduced a set of lesser known characters, and the film proved to be a fun sci-fi jaunt. Ant-Man showed up on the big screen as a relative unknown in 2015. But Marvel kept it light and easy, and delivered a jocular heist flick.
Doctor Strange is not only a minor, practically unknown figure… he’s a sorcerer. To date, there had never been a supernatural element in the any of the Marvel films. The film’s first trailer suggested a heavy-handed affair with obvious visual nods to Inception, Batman Begins, The Matrix, and even Blade Runner. This looked nothing like typical Marvel fare and for all the wrong reasons.
It didn’t help that Scott Derrickson was hired to direct the picture. Other than the forgettable Day the Earth Stood Still remake from 2008, Derrickson was known primarily for low budget, schlocky horror films. As it turns out, he was a solid choice to helm Doctor Strange. He pulled amazing performances from the cast, although the credit also goes to the the actors themselves who are at the top of their game. Derrickson’s main achievement is re-imagining trite genre clichés and making them feel fresh, and he earned every penny with this film. Doctor Strange could have been another hand waving / twig pointing CGI spectacle, but Derrickson changed it up. Instead, we were treated to a blend of martial arts and magic, and the results are spectacular.
Derrickson keeps the pacing brisk as well. Instead of a bloated nearly 3 hour run-time, Doctor Strange comes in at just under two hours. The writing team of Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, and C. Robert Cargill are able to get us in and out, but still tell a complete story. The trademark Marvel humor is also present. If I had to lodge a complaint, it would be with some of the awkward pop culture references. Fortunately they are few and far between.
I’ll go on record as saying that I thought casting Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular character was an uninspiring choice. Cumberbatch is a great actor, but he felt a little stodgy for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I was wrong. Strange is very similar to Tony Stark. Arrogant, brilliant, careless. The wrong actor could’ve ruined this by either aping Robert Downey Jr’s Stark or going too far in the other direction and playing Strange too heavily (like Christian Bales’ Bruce Wayne). Cumberbatch surprises by bringing a light touch to this role. He plays it straight, not jokey, but with just enough whimsy to make Strange likeable, which is Marvel’s main ingredient for success.
The rest of the cast does great work. Tilda Swinton plays The Ancient One just shy of ethereal, keeping the character grounded enough to be relatable. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives Karl Mordo a rigid nobility that plays well with Cumberbatch’s looser portrayal. Mads Mikkelsen is good as the villain Kaecilius… but as in most Marvel films, the bad guy is the weakest link. That’s less of a criticism and more of an observation. Marvel films know that their heroes are the draw so that’s where the focus remains.
Definitely check out Doctor Strange while it’s still on the big screen. It’s a trippy visual feast that’s also filled with fun and interesting characters.