The only sad thing about Marvel Studios’ DOCTOR STRANGE film is how blasé we’ve all gotten about how consistently good these films are.
I mean, think about it: Three IRON MAN movies. Three CAPTAIN AMERICA movies. Two AVENGERS movies. Two THOR movies. Individual offerings for GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, HULK, and ANT-MAN. And now DOCTOR STRANGE. And not a clunker in the lot. Sure, there are always going to be some you like more than others; personal tastes vary. But all these movies, all interconnected to some degree or another, and no flops? That’s a truly remarkable run of consistency, equalled only by Marvel’s fellow Disney subsidiary Pixar, and even they’ve had a stumble or two in recent years.
The result of this now is that Marvel is more free than ever to experiment with some of the more obscure, off-the-beaten-path characters in their library, secure that the Marvel Studios name will make up for the lack of “pre-awareness” that most Hollywood studios long for in their franchises. Case in point: director Scott Derrickson’s DOCTOR STRANGE, which takes a long-established but still unmistakably second-string character (occasionally third-string, to be brutally honest about it) and does with it what the Marvel films do best: recruiting A-list actors to elevate the material, and updating it to a modern sensibility while retaining everything from the original 1960s-born concept that made it a success to begin with. Derrickson’s affection for the material is apparent, as Strange’s origins and hero’s journey are portrayed oh-so-faithfully, with Benedict Cumberbatch introducing us to a spoiled, arrogant, egocentric surgeon in Stephen Strange, and then pivoting to his despair and desperation at the loss of his ability to operate following a brutal auto accident, leading to his showing up in Tibet at the front door of the Ancient One, a mysterious mystic whom he’s heard can heal the unhealable. Cumberbatch plays the part perfectly, at once pompous and lovable, and watching him transform over the course of the film to the Dr. Strange I grew up reading in the comics is a real treat.
Derrickson takes some liberties here and there, introducing a new threat in Mads Mikkelson’s evil sorcerer Luecilius, and keeping Mordo (as played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), traditionally Strange’s arch-nemesis, on the side of the angels throughout the proceedings, which actually gives some depth and heart to a character that’s never really had much of one, and will make his eventual fall from grace all the more powerful and tragic. The other big shift from the comics is Derrickson’s version of the Ancient One, portrayed wonderfully here by Tilda Swinton. While there was some internet backlash about recasting the part with a white woman, it has to be admitted that the original, wizened, long-white-beard Asian version of the Ancient One from the original comics by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko would feel pretty stereotypical and out of place in a modern perspective, and Swinton brings such tenderness, gravitas and grit to the role, it’s hard for me to imagine it played by anyone else.
And as great as the performances are, it’s the visual styling that really puts DOCTOR STRANGE over the top. The sequences that show the interdimensional, mystical realms through which Strange travels are simply marvelous, eliciting the feel of Steve Ditko’s trippy psychedelia from the pages of STRANGE TALES, but without feeling too derivative or static. Derrickson is bringing us something entirely new here, and it’s fantastic.
The real mark of the success of DOCTOR STRANGE is something I’ve noticed from the very beginnings of Marvel Studios. It happened with Iron Man, it happened with Thor, it happened with the Guardians, and it certainly happened with Dr. Strange. After seeing the film, I found myself liking the character and the original comics even more. That’s an amazing trick, and one that Warner Brothers and DC would do well to learn.