By Susan JAMES
all me a doubter but I wasn’t sure the universe was ready for yet another Marvel superhero saving the planet and fighting for truth and justice. But given that “Dr. Strange” has enlisted the talents of the supersized Benedict Cumberbatch, actor extraordinaire and BBC’s sterling Sherlock Holmes, I shouldn’t have had any doubts. Cumberbatch delivers a multi-layered Dr. Stephen Strange, who is arrogant and off-putting and strangely (sorry about that) compelling. In writer-director Scott Derrickson’s hands, “Dr. Strange” makes a powerful case for itself.
The story is the same old same old – you know the one – evil entity with badly misguided minions that tries to destroy mankind for nefarious reasons. In this case, the evil entity is called Dormammu, a supernatural being that offers eternal life to those who follow it. Dormammu’s nemesis is the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), leader of a hidden order headquartered in Nepal, who teaches her acolytes how to channel magical and mystic forces for good and is now under supernatural siege by a handful of rogue students led by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). Kaecilius and company must destroy the Ancient One and her order so that they can join Dormammu and become immortal.
Enter Dr. Stephen Strange. A hyper-arrogant, supremely gifted neurosurgeon whose hands have been permanently maimed in a car crash, Strange is looking for any way possible to restore his shattered fingers. In his search he meets Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a paraplegic now cured after what appeared to be untreatable damage. A cryptic conversation with Pangborn puts Strange on the road to Nepal to discover the secrets of the universe from the Ancient One. In the process he gains two friends, both confidantes of the Ancient One, Karl Mordo (a memorable Chiwetel Ejiofor) and gatekeeper Wong (Benedict Wong). Together they take on the Ancient One’s fight against Dormammu.
As with all Marvel superhero movies, the stakes here are basically the same. Good fights evil and mankind’s ability to mirror both aspects, often at the same time, causes problems for the hero who is, himself, imperfect. There is a supportive but ultimately disposable female character played by Rachel McAdams, but this is a buddy bro movie all the way. The exception to this is the Tilda Swinton casting decision for the role of the Ancient One, a controversial choice for which director Derrickson has taken some heat by casting a British woman in the role of a Chinese man.
Visually the film is stunning, especially the sequences between Strange and the Ancient One at the beginning of their relationship when AO opens the doctor’s astral mind and shows the skeptical neophyte that there is more in heaven and earth than he has any knowledge of. Another key aspect of the movie that works well is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Like its fellow Marvel “Iron Man,” humor plays a large part in breaking the drama into relatable bites. Here Cumberbatch’s comic timing plays to the story’s advantage and helps us relate to him as a man beneath the superhero outfit. Does the movie run a bit too long? Probably. Does Dormammu look like a malicious, planet-eating Groot? Possibly. Does the Disney-Marvel franchise have a new hit on its hands? Unquestionably.
See you at the movies!