J.K. Rowling’s Dumbledore once said, “those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who … have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.”
It’s a description that is surprisingly fitting for fellow sorcerer Doctor Stephen Strange who makes him film debut Nov. 4 in “Doctor Strange,” the first title under the new Marvel Studios brand.
In a way, both signify exciting new possibilities (and impossibilities) for the Disney-owned company. Strange was created by (surprise, surprise) Stan Lee and Steve Ditko back in the early ’60s and had remained in semi-obscurity ever since. But hey, if Marvel can turn an anthropomorphic raccoon and an insect-sized hero into box office gold, why not a neurosurgeon turned magician? That’s not a joke. Watch him abracadabra his way into our hearts and high box office returns.
In true Tony Stark fashion, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant, but conceited New York doctor who is undone by his own hubris. After a car accident causes severe and possibly irreversible nerve damage to his hands, he seeks out a cure.
His journey leads him to Nepal where he comes under the tutelage of the Ancient One (a chrome domed Tilda Swinton) who opens his mind to the world of magic and the multiverse: infinite universes parallel to our own, each with their own set of physical rules, said astrophysicist Adam Frank who consulted on the film.
“The one place where the story touches perhaps on actual science is this idea of a multiverse,” Frank told the Triangle. “In some of the universes, there’s no gravity, in other ones there’s four different kinds of gravity.”
Such things have been hinted at or alluded to in other Marvel movies like “Thor” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but here we get to see the convergence of fantasy and science fiction in all of its glory.
Director Scott Derrickson could not have been a better choice for the job as he’s had experience with the otherworldly and supernatural in his past films like “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “Sinister.” He’s just the right dude to tackle this particular origin story. “All the other Marvel movies are very sciency,” said Frank. “But you really couldn’t exactly do that with ‘Doctor Strange’ without doing too much damage to the character. That was the conundrum and that was why I was brought in.”
“Doctor Strange” is like looking at the Marvel Universe through a kaleidoscope right after you’ve dropped LSD. Yeah, it’s that trippy, and composer Michael Giacchino acknowledges this (and the character’s 1963 origins) with a sitar and keyboard laden score that melds old and new. The totally awesome mind-bending scenes of morphing reality, alternate existences and out-of-body experiences may fondly remind one of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” and yet they also feel totally fresh, fun and novel for a superhero movie.
Think the sheer inventiveness of “Ant-Man” melded with a stoner hippie’s fever dream. In other words, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen and it will blow your mind! I’m not usually a fan of the overused movie theater gimmicks, but this is the first experience since “Avatar” that has restored my faith in IMAX 3D.
In terms of the plot’s conflict, Strange is recruited to fight against Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen going a little heavy on the eye shadow), a (cliched) rogue student of the Ancient One who has turned to the (hackneyed) dark side and seeks to summon a somewhat Lovecraftian being of infinite power to consume the Earth into a timeless universe of darkness.
The appearance of this entity in the climax is a creative “Groundhog Day”-esque sequence that truly plays with the principles of magic introduced throughout the movie. Until then, the adventure hops across three different continents with infectious, thrilling urgency.
Cumberbatch was an inspired choice of casting for the eponymous role and really nails the arrogance of Strange that begins to corrode as he learns of becoming something greater than himself. He also proves himself hilarious as a man with a photographic memory whose myopic intellect is no match for a (forgive me) strange new world that is both exciting and terrifying at the same time; the script really brings the levity and laugh-out-loud humor that we’ve come to expect from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Some of the funniest parts take place in a hospital, the last place you’d expect there to be playfulness (unless you’re Zach Braff, of course) and yet Derrickson takes full advantage of milking the movie’s entire concept of seeing the unexpected juxtaposed right alongside the everyday expected. All through the danger and his own personal metamorphosis, Strange gets some pretty cool weapons like the Eye of Agamotto and the Cloak of Levitation, perhaps the greatest non-talking accessory in a Disney movie since the flying carpet in “Aladdin.” You’ll see what I mean.
And the film doesn’t skimp on the supporting characters either with Rachel McAdams as Strange’s colleague at the hospital, Christine Palmer, who kind of serves as a representative for the audience in that she’s just a normal doctor witnessing incredible events. Then there’s Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is Strange’s arch-nemesis in the comics and will probably take up the mantle in later films.
Here, however, he serves as an ally and he’s not the only character who has been changed/updated for the sake of creative license; Benedict Wong plays Wong, another master of the mystic arts in the movie who serves as the good doctor’s butler in the comic stories. And as Wong so perfectly puts it, Earth’s sorcerers fight the metaphysical threats that the Avengers can’t. I’m already getting excited chills thinking of the future team-ups! And it’s little details like Avengers Tower in shots of the Manhattan skyline that help tie “Doctor Strange” into the rich superhero tapestry that Kevin Feige and company have been weaving since the first “Iron Man.”
Frank, who teaches at the University of Rochester, has been a die-hard Marvelite since he was 11 (he once made his own Captain America shield) and often found himself inspired to become an astrophysicist thanks to science fiction pulp magazines given to him by his father.
In this regard, he believes this film can encourage future generations to take more of an interest in science. “Sometimes these movies can go beyond just being superhero movies,” he said. “I think ‘Doctor Strange’ has that possibility of getting people to think about, for example, the nature of consciousness and the maps that we use to represent the world and where those maps are partially incomplete.”
This, along with the eye-popping special effects, lovable new characters and illimitable potential avenues for upcoming MCU installments, “Doctor Strange” is one physician that was well worth the wait.