Believe it or not, there was a time – eight years ago – when Iron Man seemed just as obscure of a comic book character to the public as Doctor Strange had been (until now). So it would surprise no one if in 2024, Stephen Strange was almost as much of a household name as Tony Stark.
The similarities between 2008’s hugely successful first step for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and “Doctor Strange” don’t end there. Both films are entertaining, funny and tell the story of a cocky, career- focused protagonist who must become a hero for the sake of his own salvation.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as a Strange, a hugely successful neurosurgeon whose life, life’s work and consequently, soul, are crushed when his hands are crushed in a horrific car crash. Seeking answers to restore his ability rather than accepting his reality, Strange travels to Kathmandu, where he discovers Kamar-Taj, a temple that trains people in the mystical arts. There, Strange learns from the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) how to alter dimensions of space and time.
Strange is another comical narcissist (if Cumberbatch and Downey Jr. ever appear on screen as their Marvel characters together, watch out) who must humble himself to defeat evil, in this case Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a rebellious former pupil of the Ancient One who has set out to destroy the sanctums keeping Earth’s dimension from the dark dimension, dominion of the evil spirit Dormmamu.
If it’s not obvious from some of the plot description, the biggest script challenge for “Doctor Strange” is balancing the need to acquaint viewers with the mystical side of the Marvel universe with the need to tell a compelling story. Director Scott Derrickson, with his regular writing partner C. Robert Cargill and help from screenwriter Jon Spaihts, keep “Doctor Strange” relatively short and forward-moving even with the necessary exposition. The sacrifice is in a bit of the realism of the timeline – Strange takes on his new mantle (or cloak, I should say) relatively quickly, a problem mostly covered up by the entertainment factor and perhaps the realization that audiences get what an origin story is and don’t need all the usual tropes.
An origin story is really what “Doctor Strange” is at heart, so Derrickson must bring a more unique dimension (no pun intended) to the film through his vision. That artistic direction (which Derrickson sold Marvel on to get this film made) is the film’s bread and butter. The ubiquitous nature of superhero films and their tropes demands that each film bring something unique to the table, and “Doctor Strange” does with its “Inception”-like reality-bending world and action sequences.
The set of rules that comes with fighting enemies in a “mirror dimension” opens up so many possibilities to bring the audience something new and “Doctor Strange” flourishes in this space. The line between green-screen stunts and clever camera-work gets blurred very quickly, and in an era when amazing digital effects are commonplace, that kind of trickery goes a long way in impressing the audience.
All this to say “Doctor Strange” is just like every other Marvel film, only different. The characters and story conventions are built similarly to the studio’s previous offerings, but the aesthetic is one of a kind. Even the humor, at times, feels forced, and that’s long been a hallmark of Marvel’s cinematic style, but Derrickson has created new trappings to tell one of these same old albeit still enjoyable stories. Undeniably, as the “Strange” world becomes more familiar to audiences, future “Doctor Strange” films will have to up their story game, but for now, we can just enjoy the entertainment.
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Written by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor