Yes, we’ve seen this movie before. The reluctant hero struggles to leave behind his old life of comfort and success in order to embrace the greater good and save the world. There’s little new story-wise in Marvel Studio’s latest blockbuster Dr. Strange. Still, bolstered by knockout performances by an all star cast, eye popping and colorful visuals and the infusion of some light hearted whimsy into the standard end-of-the-world histrionics, Dr. Strange delivers Marvel’s best entry to their expanding superhero canon since 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
Benedict Cumberbatch delivers as Dr. Stephen Strange, the arrogant but brilliant neurosurgeon whose life is turned upside down when a car crash robs him of the nerve control needed to perform his breakthrough surgeries. Desperate, broke and broken, Strange follows a lead to Kathmandu, where a group of mystics led by The Ancient One (the forever enthralling Tilda Swinton) hold the key to unlocking the mind’s vast potential in order to heal the body.
In Katmandu, Strange learns about the astral plane, mirror dimensions and the existence of the multiverse. The Ancient One and her soldiers have been tasked with guarding this world from Dormammu, the ruler of the Dark Dimension. Dormammu functions as a sort of mystic Galactus, as he’s a mystical eater of worlds hellbent on adding Earth to his collection of planets in his dimension. At the film’s outset we discover a disgruntled disciple Kaecilius (Mikkelson) has stolen rituals from an ancient text that will allow him to manipulate time and space, open up a temporal fold and allow Dormammu entry to our world.
Strange’s concerns with the mystical rather than physical world allows for writers Jon Spaights and C. Robert Cargil along with director Scott Derrickson to tackle world saving morality from different angles than the standard good guy and bad grounds superhero films trod over time and time again. Mikkelson’s take on the villainous Kaecilius is fascinating, as his motivations boil down to wanting for the world what Swinton’s Ancient One possess but forbids others. It raises questions on the concentration of power, and whether one person who holds does so out of altruism or mistrust that others would abuse that power which guide her actions. The Doctor finds himself drafted as a soldier in to a mystical war he never agreed to fight. There’s a moment where Strange stands horrified over the body of a man he killed during combat. Though his actions meant saving his own life, they stand opposed to his mission as a doctor: to save lives and people. Cumberbatch gives this moment real weight, and it feels like a true moral crossroads for the character as opposed to another checkpoint on the hero quest. Going a step further, Strange’s hesitance is in part triggered to his own selfish motivations for soaking up the adulation that his skill and cleverness as a surgeon afforded him. Strange is more enamored with the trappings of success, and it’s the gradual stripping away of the material matter before he chooses his inevitable path that adds some heft to the film.
That’s not to say these weight of the world matters are conducted under a brooding atmosphere. Cumberbatch, Mikkelson and Swinton tackle their roles with the impish delight of a child left behind in the world’s largest toy store overnight. All three possess a wry sense of humor, adding a touch of winking to the audience that this is fun stuff indeed. Cumberbatch’s novice superhero fights with the spastic gracelessness of a chihuahua hopped up on sugar bombs and caffeine pills. Derrikson adds small but deft touches of humor throughout, such as Benedict Wong’s librarian rocking out to Beyonce or Mikkelson’s sardonic smile when he realizes Strange has zero idea how to wield the mystical weapons he has access to.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’ stands apart the fantastic performances from Cumberbatch, Mikkelson and Swinton and his Mordo forms a moral parallel to the elusive, ever shifting allegiances of Cumberbatch’s titular character. Ejiofor played a similar role as the big-bad in Serenity, and his take on Mordo is one who believes in the righteousness of his cause, only to have that worldview shattered by the closing credits. Mordo concerns himself with not upsetting the natural order of the world, which he believes should not be upset at any cost, even if it risks the world. Yet while the choices at his disposal might be cut and tried, Mordo’s reaction to what he feels is a betrayal of his core values is anything but. Rather than take the path of villainy as Kaelicius chose, Mordo leaves the film not knowing the next steps of his journey.
On a technical level, Dr. Strange is a marvel. The team at Industrial Light and Magic fill every frame with gorgeous, eye popping colors while drawing creative influence from a variety of forbearers, including but in no way limited toThe Matrix, Inception and Jim Henson’s designs on Labyrinth. Skyscrapers, crowded streets and whole city blocks bend, twist and fold in on themselves, reconfiguring into new landscapes with ease. The Doctor’s astral form soars from this world to other worldly dimensions rushing past vivid and colorful planets and star clusters in a way that is simply breathtaking. The breakout star of the FX comes in the form of the mythical Cloak of Levitation. Imbued with a personality of its own, it bonds with Cumberbatch’s Strange, and the pairing allows for wonderful moments of slapstick and subtle comedic gems. The effects team has the cloak move and feel like a living, breathing character all on its own while the sight of Strange hovering over a second story stairwell adds another notch to Marvel Studio’s expanding pantheon of iconic moments.
All these elements add up to a movie that feels familiar, but in ways that don’t diminish the fun to be had throughout the running time. A brief coda at the end ties the mystical elements of Strange to the Marvel universe as a whole, and the world building the studio has made their calling card continues unabated here. There’s something refreshing to the weight of the world feeling as light as air within Dr. Strange, and with his powers now established and in check, there’s little except to limit where his story can go except for the boundaries of the imagination.