Movie Review: Doctor Strange

Benedict Cumberbatch joins the Marvel universe as its most mystical character

Doctor Strange
Directed by Scott Derrickson
With Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton

The Marvel universe has expanded with the addition of a new character, Doctor Strange. The film of the same name features Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, and explains how he came to becoming a superhero.

Cumberbatch is an excellent actor, known for his stage work as much as for film, radio and TV. He brings a sense of professionalism to everything he does, and that helps enormously in Doctor Strange, which has a bit of a hard to believe plot, even for a comic book film. He is aided by another fine actor, Tilda Swinton, who plays an ageless mystic called the Ancient One, and is as enigmatic as always.

Doctor Strange brings the Marvel comic book universe into the more mystical world, with books of ancient knowledge, spells and relics. And like the rest of the films featuring the Marvel superheroes, it is heavy on computer special effects. They work a bit better here, as magic is such a big part of the plot.

Doctor Strange is actually a medical doctor, and even before he becomes a superhero his real name is Stephen Strange. The gifted surgeon, through his own arrogance, winds up being no longer able to operate. He goes on a long journey to Nepal in search of some mystical knowledge that can restore his capabilities.

Fans of martial arts films will be familiar with the middle part of the film. The arrogant student locks horns with the master but slowly learns both the mystical disciplines and a bit of humility. Very little in this case.

At the same time, though, the entire world is facing a threat, as a former student and his followers are dabbling in forbidden magic that could disrupt time and space as we know it, or something like that. Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen plays the rogue pupil Kaecilius, who ventures into other dimensions. He certainly looks the part of a villain, even without the glittery Alice Cooper–style makeup around his eyes. He was the villain in the 2006 version of Casino Royale and played a suspected pedophile in the 2012 film The Hunt.

Rounding out the main cast is Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, the love interest of the pre-superhero Doctor Strange. She remains a link to normality during the film, as she never gets caught up in the mysticism. Several other big actors have small roles that will likely be expanded on in sequels.

The film inevitably builds to a gigantic CGI climax, but this one at least makes some sense as a big magic battle has been promised throughout the film. The climax also brings some new things in addition to the destroyed section of a city, mass hysteria and the rubble of buildings, which almost every comic book film seems to think is a must-have even though everyone has seen it countless times before.

Cumberbatch walks a fine line. He brings a good sense of humor to his role, but does not laugh at his ridiculous cape-wearing persona. He treats it with the same respect he brings to his Shakespearean roles and his popular depiction of Sherlock Holmes. He believes in the character, and so should the audience. He constantly tries to make jokes that nobody laughs at, which is somehow oddly endearing. Finally getting a laugh seems like his greatest victory.

A few times in the films there are hints at the other Marvel characters, although none of them show up in the main body of the film.

Once the credit start though, there is a big hint about who he might team up with in the future. But that might be a red herring. You have to stay all the way through the rather extensive credits for a final scene that seems to contain a bit of the plot of Doctor Strange's next appearance.

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