REVIEW: ‘Doctor Strange’ conjures up a Marvel-ously wondrous ride

Doctor Strange, the 14th film in Marvel Cinematic Universe series, is all that audiences should expect it to be, and more.

Yes, it delivers Marvel requisite brand of innovative action, memorable characters and humor to give the film a lighter touch. And yes, it’s an origin, which bears some similarity in the broad strokes to Marvel character origins audiences have seen before.

If you love that formula, then you’ll find lots to love spending some time with the good Doctor. But that’s just the beginning.

The “more” comes from the dazzling visualization of a corner of the Marvel Universe not yet seen on film. The wonders, temptations, and horrors of Marvel’s mystic side, as envisioned by director Scott Derrickson, are what set this film apart.

Those elements, and how they drive the film’s characters, bring a fascinating freshness into the proceedings. It’s literally a universe unfolding before our eyes, and its fun to watch.

What’s it about?

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is in his own way a master of his universe. Blessed with an eidetic memory and talented hands, he’s one the world’s most renowned neurosurgeons, and he’s parlayed that renown into wealth, comfort, and entitlement.

An accident, however, snatches away the keys to his talent, his success, and his very identity: the stability of his hands. Modern science and medicine simply are not enough to fix the nerve damage, or so it seems.

The end of roads familiar to Strange lead him, in turn, down an entirely unfamiliar path. Thus begins his journey into understanding the Mystic Arts, and through them beginning to grasp the “true” nature of the universe.

Strange finds himself a student again, with a whole new set of disciplines to master. He throws himself into study, and soon, his prowess as a sorcerer grows.

But his new powers, of course, come with responsibilities. When an ancient evil arrives to threaten Earth’s mystic defenders, they expect Strange to join the battle.

Can the “good” doctor be more than he has been thus far in his life? Can he look past his ego and just one way to save lives, and embrace a new destiny?

Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE one-sheet

Another origin done right

Watching Doctor Strange, it’s not hard to see the film following the formula earlier Marvel films perfected. The readiest comparison is to 2014’s Ant-Man, but there are echoes of 2008’s original Iron Man here, too, particularly in the parallels between Tony Stark and Stephen Strange. Both geniuses, both wealthy, both arrogant and blissfully ignorant of harsh realities outside their fantasy lives.

What injects life and freshness into Doctor Strange despite those similarities is, in part, how different the path of discovery is this time. Veteran horror film director Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister) delivers a harrowing crash course in the multiverse for Strange. Derrickson’s conception of otherworldly travel’s sights and sounds are both breathtaking and terrifying.

But as dark as the places he takes Strange to are, Derrickson strives for balance in the film through humor. In fact, it’s debatable that the film skirts the boundaries of outright goofiness while trying to keep things balanced.

Example? One of Strange’s most recognizable artifacts may just remind you of the magic carpet in Disney’s Aladdin. Yes, you read that correctly.

Cumberbatch, Swinton lead a superb cast

But whatever reservations you might have about Doctor Strange‘s attempts at levity, its casting is pitch perfect. Cumberbatch is spot-on as Strange, whom he keeps likable despite the arrogance and know-it-all ego. He makes it fun to see Strange broken down and be built back up, to ride along with him as he discovers just how much he doesn’t know.

Tilda Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One raised hackles and inspired charges of Hollywood “whitewashing” when it was announced. Both the film’s script and Swinton’s efforts fully validate the choice, however, as she brings grace, power, and surprising humor to the role.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong are the other real standouts in the film’s supporting cast. Ejiofor, in particular, can always be counted on to bring gravity and believability to what otherwise might be a stock role. Just look at his other genre work in Serenity, 2012, and The Martian and its clear what he brings to these proceedings — he’s that good here, too.

Worth seeing?

Let’s face it. If you’re reading this review on this web site, chances are you made plans months ago to see Doctor Strange. So the question of whether its worth seeing is as moot as moot gets.

But in case you worry you might be disappointed the 14th time around with Marvel, don’t. It’s a wondrous ride for both newbies and self-styled students of the Vishanti and acolytes of Agamotto.

If at all possible, see it in IMAX or 3D, and though it should go without saying, stick around for the mid and post-credits scenes. They’re worth your while, True Believers.

Doctor Strange

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt and Scott Adkins, with Mads Mikkelsen and Tilda Swinton. Directed by Scott Derrickson.
Running Time: 115 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence.

Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.