“I don’t believe in fairy tales about chakras or energy or the power of belief.” ~ Stephen Strange
“Might I offer you some advice? Forget everything that you think you know.” ~ Mordo
"Heroes like the Avengers protect the world from physical dangers. We safeguard it against more mystical threats." ~ Wong
"I do not seek to rule this world. I seek to destroy it." ~ Kaecilius
“You’re a man looking at the world through a keyhole. You’ve spent your life trying to widen it. Your work saved the lives of thousands. What if I told you that reality is one of many?” ~ The Ancient One
"Where have you been?" ~ Christine Palmer
"I went to Kathmandu, and I learned to tap into powers I never knew I had." ~ Stephen Strange
"So you joined a cult?" ~ Christine Palmer
Among the many characters dating back to the earliest days of Marvel’s classic era is the Sorceror Supreme, Doctor Stephen Strange, a creation of artist Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. The former surgeon turned master wizard has been a fixture ever since, in solo ongoing titles, miniseries, as part of a team, or in major events that have often had earth shaking consequences. Now the character joins the Marvel cinematic universe in a major solo film that introduces the character and the mystical side of a fantastic world, while still retaining roots to what’s already been established. It also retains the character’s initial arrogance turned to humility in this origin story that brings a proud man into a new role for the world. And for good measure, there’s a healthy dose of humour among the proceedings.
We meet one of the big bads of the film, a sorcerer named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, who’s often playing villains) as he and his followers stage a raid at a Himalayan retreat named Kamar-Taj, murdering a librarian and stealing an ancient text. The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who once taught Kaecilius, and who is in charge of the place, isn’t pleased by the turn of events.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an esteemed surgeon who’s let his reputation go to his head and has developed a rather arrogant streak. That’s all brought to a halt when he gets into a rather bad car accident that ends his surgical record, what with ruining the capability of his hands for the fine work of surgery. His former lover and colleague Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) tries to encourage him to move on with his life, but he’s more interested in finding a way to recover the full use of his hands. The path ultimately leads him to Kamar-Taj, where the Ancient One and one of her fellow sorcerers, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) take him on as a student, introducing him to the mystic world, secrets of magic, and other realities. In time, however, trouble is brewing, as the reasons for the raid become clear, and Kaecilius seeks to draw out an even bigger Big Bad from the Dark Dimension.
The idea of a feature film involving the Sorceror Supreme goes back to the 1980s, and in fact there was a TV movie from the late 1970s. More serious efforts to make the film started six years ago, with the go-ahead coming in 2014 with director Scott Derrickson coming in to helm the project. Numerous actors were considered for the lead, with Cumberbatch being consistently among them- the production ultimately ended up working around the actor’s schedule. Derrickson had a hand in writing the story, along with two other credited writers, Jon Spaights and C. Robert Cargill, and the story is both an origin tale and one that firmly establishes the character in the cinematic universe.
Along the way the story turns certain characters into different roles, while working to put its protagonist through the path to knowledge (and away from arrogance) that is so integral to what makes him work so well. The story is highly metaphysical and fantastic, which suits the source material very well- there are influences of The Matrix or Inception, with a magical overtone. While elements of the film are very much real world (at least real world Marvel cinematic universe style), other elements- once one starts dashing around other dimensional realities- are very much impossible, over the top, and incredible. The story still manages to maintain its foothold in that cinematic universe, telling a tale of who can be called upon to guard against threats that the Avengers can’t deal with. There are nods to the previously established cinematic universe, such as the idea of the dark dimension, the Infinity Stones, or a well placed cameo appearance. There’s even humour spread liberally through the screenplay, which might be a surprise with such epic otherworldly stakes at play.
Derrickson’s background as a director is mostly in horror films, and so this is his first foray into the super-hero genre. And he does very well indeed with it. His enthusiasm for the characters certainly come across, and he brings this fantastic world to vivid life. Derrickson paces the film in a way that’s always smooth, never with moments that feel slow or plodding along. The film straddles the worlds of science and magic, and gives us a protagonist that somehow copes with the contradictions of both, being in both worlds. Filming was done on location in Nepal- which gives much of the film a beautifully rugged, otherworldly feel, as well as in the United Kingdom and New York, with studio work in the UK.
The crew- especially those in special effects- bring to life the fantastic realms and realities the Doctor must deal with, both in small touches like props and costumes and in terms of the look of places like mirror realities, the astral plane, and the Dark Dimension. Their work really makes the film a visual spectacle. A particular nod must go to those who designed the look and properties of the Cape of Levitation, a part of Strange’s garb that seems to take on a life of its own. The sense of otherworldliness transfers over to the score by Michael Giacchino, who seems to compose half of scores these days- admittedly an exaggeration- and who gives the film a magical touch with the accompanying score.
The cast are all wonderfully chosen for their parts, even if some of the casting choices are highly unconventional. Benedict Wong is a British actor who’s appeared recently in The Martian and Prometheus. He plays Wong, a character rather different from his comics incarnation, where there he is the manservant and voice of conscience to Strange. Here he is a master of the mystic arts, taking on the role of guarding the sacred texts of Kamar-Taj after the murder of his predecessor. The character is something of a strict drill sergeant, not to be trifled with or underestimated, but likable beneath the gruffness.
Mads Mikkelsen often gets to play either outright villains or brooding characters in much of his international work outside his home country of Denmark. He’s probably best known to many filmgoers as the antagonist Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, and here he plays the villain with scenery chewing gusto. Kaecilius is a mixture of characters from the comics, but one who believes he’s doing the right thing, even if that’s a path into the wrong thing. There’s an element of the relationship between Sauron and Saruman in the character- as formidable as the wizard might be, he’s a forerunner for a bigger threat (a rather unpleasant fellow named Dormammu who likes hanging around in the Dark Dimension and being thoroughly despicable). Mikkelsen makes him a character you can hate- while you’re still understanding where he’s coming from.
Tilda Swinton may seem an unlikely choice for the Ancient One- the comics book character was a Tibetan man- and the reasons they altered both ethnicity and sex for the character are rather convoluted. That said, she’s well suited for the role, one of those rare actors gifted with eccentricity that fits this character. There’s a mix of serenity and grave responsibility to her, as well as dry humour and wit that I liked. She takes her role in the great balance of things seriously- even if it might blind her to a point of view that disagrees with her own. Swinton makes the character her own, and does a formidable job of it.
Rachel McAdams has a good turn in the film as Christine Palmer. Rather than be the requisite love interest, the story turns that on its head by having her and Strange coming out of a previous relationship on friendly terms, and instead Christine is his anchor to his humanity. It’s an interesting twist, and McAdams gives the character depth and humanity, as well as invests seriousness and professionalism into how she plays her- Christine is, after all, a surgeon in her own right, and those qualities are critical to such an occupation. More to the point, we can accept the connection between the two characters- the way they interact suggests lots of history.
Chiwetel Ejiofer is one of those character actors you’ve seen in many films down through the years, including Children Of Men and 12 Years A Slave. Two of his roles that particularly stand out for me are as the Operative in Serenity and as Detective Mitchell in the sublime cops and robbers caper Inside Man. He plays Mordo as something different than the comic version, and the result works well. The comic version is a villain, a ruthless sorcerer without nuances. Mordo here is a mentor and ally to Strange, working with him through the film, though ultimately they end up in different places. He’s a stickler for the rules, and Ejiofer gives the character qualities of wisdom, gravity, and occasional impatience. He makes the character compelling to watch.
There were numerous actors considered to play the lead, many of whom would have been ideal, but Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as the character. He brings across the character’s early arrogance (and a personal reason to be a doctor) very well, as Strange has let his gifts get the better of his ego. From there, he conveys the sense of startled wide eyed curiosity and bafflement as Strange discovers worlds and realities far beyond his experience through the learning process. The actor also brings to life the character’s humility, eccentricity, and ultimately audacity as the story goes along. I like that he’s willing to bend rules as he finds his place in a world of magic, and that Cumberbatch invests the character with intelligence and wit. The actor gets a second role of sorts, providing motion capture movement for Dormammu, the third act Big Bad. Especially as the lead though, he’s charismatic and fun to watch, and that comes across through the film.
Doctor Strange opens up the mystic side of the Marvel cinematic universe in a big way- it’s something that’s been underplayed, really, aside from one of the Avengers. It’s entertaining and thrilling, fun and visually sparkling, and a pleasure to watch, with a terrific cast. It makes for a very good way to wind down what’s been a year of cinematic superheroes- some of whom have worked better than others. This film is very much the former of those.