As everybody knows The Avengers exist to save the planet from physical threats like rogue sentient robots and red skulled Nazis. But who protects us from metaphysical danger? Apparently a guy in a crazy cape who looks a lot like Sherlock Holmes.
If you’re not familiar with Stephen Strange, “Doctor Strange,” the fourteenth film in the Marvel Universe introduces you to the neurosurgeon who goes from saving lives to saving planets.
When we first meet Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) he’s a gifted surgeon, a good-looking mix of ambition, charm and arrogance. When a car accident leaves him with severe nerve damage in his hands, he feels he has lost his best asset. The fingers that one’s free-handed complicated nerve surgery cannot now even hold a pen.
His search for a cure leads him to Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a paraplegic who regained use of his hands and legs. “You came back from a place there is no coming back from,” says Strange. “I’m trying to find my way back.” Pangborn tells the desperate man of a place in Kathmandu, Nepal where he can experience a spiritual journey of healing.
In Nepul he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) an immortal Celt and Sorceress Supreme who teaches Strange some weird new tricks. With her guidance and his photographic memory, he quickly learns how to re-orient the spirit to heal the body. He also discovers who to teleport himself form one place to another and control the very fabric of time. Nifty stuff.
His lessons come in handy when Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student, returns to steal a single page of an ancient text. The spell contained on the page would give him a power over time that would make Dr. Who envious. His endgame is to join our world with the Dark Dimension, a place beyond time, thus ensuring life eternal. With the very essence of time at stake can Doctor Strange take a licking, but keep on ticking?
Despite a plot that deals with horology and the metaphysical make-up of the universe, “Doctor Strange” doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s an origin story, pure and simple, that breaks up the interdimensional gobbledegook with bits of levity. Add to that a running gag with Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” and some very trippy visuals and you have a movie that feels fresh despite being yet another origin tale.
Cumberbatch’s take on Strange echoes Marvel’s Tony Stark character. He’s arrogant and quick with a line, but where Stark had an air of unpredictability about him, Strange has none. He’s driven by ego and a need to get his life back, not the darker, and more interesting urges that propelled Stark’s world-saving.
Instead the movie focuses on bringing his experience to vivid life. As Strange begins his mystical journey director Scott Derrickson fills the screen with kaleidoscopic images. The trippy pictures entertain the eye and lend an authentic comic book feel to the movie that is sometimes missed in these big screen adaptations. Who knows how many pixels were harmed to create the hallucinogenic M.C. Escher-esque folding landscapes. Imagine the shifting terrains of “Inception,” but on steroids and you get the idea.
It takes some doing to stand out amid the film’s psychedelic visuals but Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One and Chiwetel Ejiofor as mentor Karl Mordo stand head and shoulders above the fray. Swinton sidesteps early criticism of character whitewashing—in the comic books the Ancient One is generally portrayed as a Tibetan man—by handing in an androgynous character who identifies as Celtic.
“Doctor Strange” is a lively mix of mysticism and mirth that breathes some new life into the Marvel Universe.