I’m no expert on comic books but I know more than your average person and one thing I’ve always noticed about the Marvel universe is that it’s filled with characters who are ostensibly stars in their own right and have their own books but who mostly exist by making cameos in other more popular superheroes books. These are characters like The Punisher or Ghost Rider or Black Widow who probably have their fanbases and which any Marvel fan will be able to recognize and know the general background of but who generally aren’t the marquee characters who sell tons of comic books. Doctor Strange is definitely one of these characters. He’s had titles over the years where he was the star but they have not been published consistently over the decades like, say, The X-Men have. Instead most people will know him from his tendency to pop up in other heroes titles. Say that Spider-Man were to find a magical trinket of some kind on one of his adventures, more than likely there would be a scene where he seeks out Doctor Strange to explain what this trinket was, thus both giving us a bit of exposition without having to involve some random boring scientist of occult expert. Consequently, he’s a hero I don’t know a lot about given that most of my exposure to him involves single page cameos, but Marvel Studios is nothing if not adept at making obscure properties into box office hits and that’s exactly what they intend to do with the new feature length adaptation Doctor Strange.
The film focuses on a man named Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a highly skilled and well paid surgeon and also something of an arrogant ass. This hubris does catch up with him however when he starts texting patient dossiers while driving his Lamborghini around a mountain road and ends up in a huge wreck. He survives the accident but is left with major nerve damage in his hands which leaves him unable to perform precise surgeries and thus unemployed and aimless. In his desperation he goes to Nepal, where he’s heard that there’s some sort of genius who has caused miraculous recoveries in the past. There he finds The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), an expert of the mystical arts who is thousands of years old and massively powerful. The Ancient One and her accolade Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) see some potential in Strange and invite him to train in the mystical arts at their sanctum and Strange uses the same photographic memory that made him such a great surgeon to quickly become an expert at mysticism, powers that he desperately needs because The Ancient One’s order is under threat of being destroyed by an apostate mystic named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who has joined forces with an evil demon from another realm named Dormammu to cause all sorts of evil and destruction.
If that plot sounds familiar it’s because Strange’s character arc bears a strong resemblance to Tony Stark’s arc from the original Iron Man except with our hero starting as an arrogant doctor (one that rather suspiciously resembles the title character from “House, M.D. in his mannerisms) instead of an arrogant industrialist. From there the film follows a fairly typical superhero origin pattern, although it is perhaps notable that this hero is learning his skills from a mentor rather than coming to terms with his new powers on his own. Of course The Ancient One’s reasons for accepting Strange as an accolade in the first place seem rather suspect. Strange does not make a very good first impression when he arrives at the sanctum though his poor attitude and limited grasp on what the mystic arts are in the first place. She seems to be persuaded to take him on for no real reason and her decision to take him or anyone else on as an accolade seems rather odd given that Kaecilius is already out and on the run as the film begins, which begs the question of exactly how long of a timeframe the film takes place over and why The Ancient One isn’t doing more to stop him over the course of Strange’s training.
So, clearly Doctor Strange isn’t exactly what you’d call a great work of literature but it makes up for this in a number of ways. Doctor Strange has long been one of the more visually original superhero comic books what with its crazy interdimensional travel and spells and the movie does a pretty decent job of living up to that. The various spells look very good onscreen and director Scott Derrickson (who mostly has a background making horror movies) does a pretty good job of adding a sort of logic to the craziness onscreen . The standout visual is of course the one hinted at in the trailers where urban areas are bend out of shape like an M. C. Escher painting by way of Christopher Nolan. It should perhaps be noted that this is the first Marvel movie I opted to see in 3D and I think it’s the first movie in general I’ve seen in that format since Gravity. This isn’t exactly the most vital use of 3D I’ve ever seen, but it is pretty neat and this is probably the way the movie should be seen, especially during the aforementioned city bending sequence.
This is kind of an odd movie to defend. I’ve spent nearly a decade whining that Marvel movies have an unfortunate cookie-cutter quality and yet here I am just throwing up my hands and saying “whatever, it’s fun” in the face of one of their most derivative efforts yet. I think part of that is timing. The last Marvel movie was Captain America: Civil War, which I’m told only came out six months ago but it kind of feels like it’s been an eternity since then. What’s more we haven’t gotten a solo origin movie from them since last year’s Ant-Man and before that we haven’t gotten one since… geez, since the first Captain America movie. The movie also has the befit of coming out at a time when we are richly in need of escapism. I watched the movie the weekend before the presidential election when I was a bundle of nerves and as I write this I now know the outcome and… oh boy, I think we’re going to need Marvel more than ever in the next four years.