A powerful testament to the power of special effects in creating an immersive cinematic reality, “Dr. Strange” is a revitalizing, fresh addition to the Marvel cinematic universe. Aided by awe-inspiring visuals and strong performances from its cast, the film overcomes its slow start to deliver a memorable and inventive superhero narrative.
An arrogant and self-infatuated neurosurgeon whose life loses meaning after a horrible car accident robs him of his steady hands, Stephen Strange — played by Benedict Cumberbatch — sets off on a voyage to Nepal in an attempt to regain purpose. He finds much more than he was searching for, learning about the incredible, unexplored reality of parallel universes, mysterious sorcery and superhuman threats to the world. Under the tutelage of the Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinto, he must help defeat the evil Kaecilius, played by Mads Mikkelsen.
Some elements of Strange’s journey of personal discovery are lost in the film’s generic plot. The doctor’s path to recovery is burdened by the need to follow a typical superhero storyline, with rushed and predictable developments. Strange’s coworker and former romantic interest, played by Rachel McAdams, makes the most of her limited screen time, but does not have an actual impact on the story.
Still, “Dr. Strange” has a lot more in mind than setting forth a typical superhero crusade, incorporating deep personal exploration, tormented heroes and extensive character development. The Ancient One, an idealistic role model and righteous guide, and Kaeciliu, a villainous former prodigy fallen from grace, go beyond the characterization of a typical mentor and villain. Swinton steals every scene she is in, perfectly blending a sense of authority and wisdom with kindness, while Mikkelsen does more than enough to become one of the few memorable foes in recent superhero movies.
Cumberbatch, perfectly cast as a flawed but charismatic and sympathetic protagonist, is one of the film’s highlights. Drawing from his portrayal of Khan in “Star Trek Into Darkness” — haunted by his past and in conflict with the present — he creates a persona distinct from other Marvel heroes. He possesses the bad boy extravagance of Tony Stark and the crisis-leading-to-existential-doubt narrative of Bruce Wayne, but his internal struggles make him a more complex and human hero.
Director Scott Derrickson — a savant of horror films — dives into the world of action and superheroes for the first time with positive results. After directing “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” it was only fitting that he be put in charge of helping Strange exorcize his own demons. The expository segments of the movie — explaining the many rules and laws of this complicated universe — are excessive at times, but Cumberbatch’s characterization of Strange relieves tension and allows the movie to move forward with ease. The convincing portrayal of his own skepticism toward the complex spiritual world he is delving into, as well as his sarcastic remarks and quick jokes, gets viewers through otherwise tiring segments.
The visually mesmerizing cinematography and animation are also impressive. As Strange runs through Manhattan, having to deal with gravity shifts, spiraling buildings, multiple gravity fields and the world collapsing in on itself, the viewer cannot help but embrace the full-on craziness of it all.
While reality gets warped as Strange travels through the multiverse and explores different dimensions, his own character never succumbs to the incredible developments around him. Cu mberbatch maintains a refreshing humanity as his character improves his skills, confidence and understanding of the world of sorcery, matching the awe and amazement of viewers as they delve into the amazing intricacies of this unexplored reality.