Sunday, November 06, 2016
The new Marvel film Doctor Strange was directed and cowritten by Scott Derrickson, who must have thanked whomever or whatever he worships for the fact that Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch in a surprisingly prickly turn) isn't as well known to most current audiences as Captain America or The Hulk. Derrickson's previous directing credits include Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and while I haven't seen those films it doesn't feel to harsh to say that Marvel wasn't about to hand Derrickson one of its show ponies. Doctor Strange the comic book hero dates back to 1963, but the new film's successful opening weekend probably says more about Marvel brand loyalty than it does about built-in love for the character.
All that said, Doctor Strange is a brisk entertainment that welcomes Cumberbatch into the Marvel Universe, where he should jolt several existing characters out of complacency. (I look forward to seeing Cumberbatch interact with Robert Downey, Jr.) The opening scenes quickly cast Strange as a man whose colleagues - including Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) - admire him for his talent and detest him for his ego. After an accident ends Strange's surgical career he journeys to Nepal, where an order of sorcerers led by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) trains him in the mystic arts. These training scenes follow a familiar pattern, with Swinton's Ancient One and another sorcerer named Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) shaking their heads and offering tough love. What makes this part of Doctor Strange work though is Cumberbatch, who plays Strange throughout as a man getting by on his intellect as much as what he learns from his masters. The sight of a superhero thinking about something other than the challenges of heroism is a pleasant surprise, and Cumberbatch suggests Strange's arrogance slipping away as the story turns back towards New York and the usual threats to the world as we know it.
Of course there is a villain; he's a sorcerer gone bad named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who wants to turn the Earth over to a trans-dimensional being named Dormammu, who will then do ... something. There's a to-do about eternal life and time being a villain, but the final confrontation is handled with a welcome light touch. Fights earlier in the film make splendid use of the characters' powers in a way that makes the street-shifting in Inception look ponderous. The term "comic book movie" will continue to be a divisive one, but Doctor Strange fills that bill in the best sense - it's bright, fast, and shiny with a true hero at the center.