Doctor Strange

In 2014 Marvel expanded its cinematic universe to include cosmic interstellar science fiction with Guardians of the Galaxy.  With this year’s Doctor Strange, they now venture into the mystical corners of the Marvel pantheon.  I had my doubts a few years ago that people would follow them into the cosmic.  There are none now about this trip into the mystic.  This is a movie making enterprise that deserves much benefit of the doubt and probably a pass or two if they stumble again.

Doctor Strange is the story of Stephen Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, a brilliant and successful neurosurgeon with an ego to match.  When he’s in a car crash that smashes his finely developed hands, rendering him unable to perform surgery, he searches the world for effective cures.  Eventually he winds up in Nepal, spending the last of his accumulated savings.  He hears about a mystical order of sorcerers led by the Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton who showed a paralyzed man how to walk again.  Once convinced of the reality of the mystic arts, Strange advances quickly, mostly due to his photographic memory and high intelligence.  But he also needs to learn a little humility as well.  Eventually it becomes clear to the Ancient One and her closest advisor, Mordo, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, that Strange is the next “Sorcerer Supreme.”  His innate ability and mental inclination destines him to become the leader of the order.

But he needs to become proficient quickly, because there is a sorcerer brought up in the order that has been seduced by the evil side of it.  His name is Kaecilius, played by Mads Mikkelsen, and he wants to deliver the world to the entity known as Dormammu, Lord of the Dark Dimension.  Dormammu wants invade our dimension and stop the second law of thermodynamics, giving everyone immortality or an eternity of slavery and suffering.  It depends on who you ask.

If you read my description of the title character and you are at all familiar with Cumberbatch’s work, you will know that this role isn’t exactly a stretch for him.  He has made a career of playing the smartest person in the room and he excels at it.  Fortunately, he is skilled at finding subtle differences in the characters he plays.  He unearths the vulnerabilities in Strange’s armor coated ego and uses them to differentiate him from Sherlock Holmes and Alan Turing.  He also looks like the comic book character.  I don’t think there’s any studio better at casting than Marvel.

Mads Mikkelsen makes the villain somewhat sympathetic, giving him good reasons for his rebellion against the order.  Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo is steadfast as the Ancient One’s right hand man.  And of course Tilda Swinton can always be relied upon to deliver an excellent performance.  I think I still would have preferred an Asian actor for this role, but you cannot fault Swinton’s performance.

The plot is pretty straight forward.  This is not one of Stan Lee’s more imaginative origin stories.  But the dialog is good and the film has just the right amounts of humor, characterization and action.

But the visuals are where it really excels.  Doctor Strange has the most inventive special effects since Inception.  The landscapes bend and twist in Escher-like contortions and do it with a speed and energy that is astonishing.  The glowing mystical shields and weapons that the sorcerer’s conjure up are well integrated into the picture.  They have translated Steve Ditko’s vision of the mystical dimensions spectacularly.  This really is a prime example of special effects as an art form.

This is one of the better Marvel movies, which is saying a lot.  That bar is very high.  It needs to be seen in a theater and probably in 3D as well.

And make sure you stay until the very end of the credits.

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