After a car accident damages his hands beyond the point of repair, noted neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) heads to the East to see if there is some unconventional way of curing himself. What he finds is a solution beyond the science he longed had placed his trust in – magic. As he immerses himself in studying the mystic arts he finds himself drawn into a world that harbors its own dangers in the form of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a rival sorcerer who has dark designs on the world.
From a high level view, Doctor Strange very much follows the standard Marvel origin template. Much like heroes like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, Stephen Strange starts off the story as a genius astride the top of his field. But once circumstances rob him of his status and conspire to keep him from doing what he loves, he pursues an alternate means to reclaim his former life. But in that process he discovers that his new found power is forcing him to reexamine his priorities and feelings of responsibility to others. Of course, this is all just baked into the source material in part due to all of these were themes that ubiquitous writer Stan Lee kept returning to in the 1960s when he was co-creating many of these characters. Even without the superficialities in facial hair and a flirtatious relationship with a red-haired colleague, it is easy to think that Marvel could be positioning the character to be the one of the leading characters of the next couple of cycles of films for that inevitable time when Downey leaves the franchise.
To his credit, director Scott Derrickson never feels like he is just going down a list ticking off boxes. He keeps things moving along at a reasonable clip that gets us to the finale with very little lag. The only problem with this pacing is that even though we are shown that Strange is learning magic at an accelerated rate and a character makes a throwaway comment about him being away for some time, we don’t really get an idea of how much time has passed during his studies.
Visually, the film also pretty much sticks to the Marvel house style for the more reality-based segments of the story. But Derrickson really shines when he gets to visualize the reality-bending properties of combat by magic. In the first of two major sequences, Derrickson takes the reality shifting visuals from Christopher Nolan’s Inception and filters them through M. C. Esher’s design sense to create a dizzying action set-piece unlike anything seen before. The second – which comes in the film’s finale so I will refrain from spoilerish specifics – is an even more ingenious twisting of time and space. Between the two segments and the scenes where Strange journeys through dimensions beyond our own – during which fans of Steve Ditko’s art work from Doctor Strange’s early comic appearances will have much to like – this is one of those rare movies where the 3D upcharge at the box office is actually worth investing in.
Derrickson and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill have a tricky mandate with Doctor Strange – introduce the concept of magic into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Up until now, all superpowers depicted in the franchise have had a science-fictional rational behind them. Even Thor and his Asgardian cohorts have been explained away as exceptionally long-lived aliens who have been mistaken for gods by us earthlings via Arthur C Clarke’s maximum about any sufficiently technology appearing to be magic. Doctor Strange keys off of this idea somewhat by suggesting that the magic at play here is just the harnessing of energy normally outside the realm of human perception. Manipulation of these energies still requires conforming to the natural laws governing time and space. And in an important plot point, even the bending of those natural laws could have grievous consequences in the future.
Although it does come smack in the middle of the building, interwoven plotlines of Marvel Studios’ Phase Three set of films, Doctor Strange is very much a self-contained unit. In fact, outside of one shot of the New York skyline featuring the Avengers Tower and two throwaway mentions, there is no real heavy linkage to the rest of the franchise. There is a mid-credits scene that does that heavy lifting, but separated as it is from the main movie it is easily dismissable for those not inclined in Marvel’s greater cinematic tapestry.