Kevin Feige has been wanting to make a Doctor Strange movie since before the Marvel Cinematic Universe began with “Iron Man” in 2008. In that respect, it is not surprising that he would strive to make the film as good as it is. However, what I didn’t expect in Scott Derrickson’s film about the Sorcerer Supreme is an emotional depth in the character development that we probably haven’t seen in a Marvel movie since that original “Iron Man.” A big part of that film’s impact rested on Robert Downey Jr.’s own personal story of redemption; “Doctor Strange” benefits from a story that looks at science and intellect vs. faith and belief in a way that is unexpected for a major action blockbuster. That is what really resonated with me in a harder way than I saw coming.
When we first meet him, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant surgeon who is looking for impossible cures that will continue to make him rich and famous. He’s also an arrogant, self-centered prick who is not above belittling others in his field when he is brought in for a second opinion on difficult cases. One evening, he is going to an event and checking on potential cases for himself when he loses control in a rainstorm and gets into a brutal car wreck which very nearly kills him. He wakes up in the hospital, with Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), a fellow doctor and on again/off again lover, by his side. His hands are a mess, with pins in them and elevated. He has already had multiple surgeries on them, but insists on further ones so he can return to his practice. Soon after, he has practically bankrupted himself, and is unable to accept when a colleague refuses to perform an experimental procedure on him, distancing himself from Christine. In his search for a way to regain the full use of his hands, he hears of someone who was paralyzed, but now can walk. What he learns leads him to Nepal, where his already significant knowledge of the universe is going to be blown away by what a mysterious individual known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) has to offer him.
In a great many ways that I would, frankly, rather not go through, this is very much in the vein of every other Marvel origin story, and as mentioned above, the script by Derrickson (“Sinister,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still”), C. Robert Cargill and Jon Spaihts follows the same structure of Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man,” practically to a “t” as we watch Strange transform himself from arrogant genius to a hero worthy of fighting to protect the world from Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of The Ancient One whose study of the techniques she teaches has led him to a dangerous place. It’s the journey that matters in these origin stories, and the devil in the details of “Doctor Strange” is what floored me most of all in this film. Watching Cumberbatch as Strange post-accident felt, in many ways, like looking in a mirror at myself in 2007, when I was hospitalized with pneumonia and a collapsed lung, and the months after when I realized how detrimentally anxious I had become in my life. I went about changing that in a more direct, frightening way than I ever had before because for my own sake, as well as others, I had to. Strange’s journey reminded me of my own, albeit in the realm of superhero fantasy, and it made “Doctor Strange” even more entertaining and thoughtful to watch beyond just being the latest piece of Marvel storytelling in their massive universe. Much credit goes to Derrickson, who never really showed this type of attention to character storytelling before, and Cumberbatch, who was always the best option for the Sorcerer Supreme, but ended up being even more important than we could have thought to the role because of the emotional commitment he makes to the character, which sells Strange’s evolution perfectly.
One of the biggest sources of stress I’ve encountered over the years is when my brain can intellectually tell me one thing while my heart feels something else. That is, fundamentally, the journey we see Strange take in this movie when he encounters The Ancient One- taking a leap of faith on the mysticism and magic he is being introduced to when his analytical mind tells him something quite different. Much was made about the controversial choice of Swinton to play the classically-Asian Ancient One, but when you have an actor capable of displaying such intelligence and mystery all with her eyes and demeanor, you cast that actor. The actor is what will make the role work on-screen, and Swinton’s unusual persona, ever changing between roles, is more important to the character in movie form than her ethnicity, and a perfect match for Cumberbatch’s Strange. (At least they didn’t have her do yellow face.) The other key characters in Nepal and our introduction into Marvel’s mystical realm are Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who basically becomes Strange’s sidekick (although, spoiler alert, that probably won’t last long), and Wong (Benedict Wong, who steals all his scenes with humor and thoughtfulness), while Palmer, sadly, is relegated to a secondary role like too many smart Marvel female characters have. (Expect her to be chillaxing with Jane Foster and Pepper Potts on a beach somewhere during “Avengers: Infinity War.”) As for Kaucilius, well, we always have Loki when it comes to Marvel villains to contend with, although he’s much better written and performed than Iron Man’s baddies have been in his films.
It almost feels like an afterthought to talk about how good the film is from a technical, and visual, standpoint at this point, which is a tribute to how well I feel Derrickson succeeded in telling the story, first and foremost. This film looks (and sounds, courtesy of Michael Giacchino’s score) as good, if not better, than most Marvel films, and may be one I have to watch in 3D if I get the chance to watch all the world-bending action and images pop on the screen. Thankfully, there’s plenty of substance to justify further examination of Marvel’s latest blockbuster, and a personal connection that few films accomplish.