We were bound to hit a lull in the excitement that comes from Marvel movies, especially the origin story part of the deal. That natural – and vital – aspect to the expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been played out up, down, and all over the place to the point we find ourselves craving something, anything outside the norm. Thank God for Doctor Strange, that atypical, origin story for which we’ve been waiting. Sure, it delivers on the excitement and humorous fun we’ve all come to expect, but under the direction of Scott Derrickson, the Marvel superhero who deals in mysticism and the strange, otherworldly creatures knocking on the door to our plane of existence comes alive with unexpected and surprisingly fresh results.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays the eponymous doctor, a brilliant neurosurgeon who is well aware of that brilliance. Strange is an arrogant man whose ego is what drives the very brilliance of his work at hand. To that end the doctor has much in common with his fellow, MCU folk (namely Tony Stark). Strange’s life, though, doesn’t play out in perfect form until the greater world comes calling for his expertise. Rather, his arrogance blinds him to that part of the world until he’s the one who is in trouble, his gift of healing lost to him after a violent car accident leaves him physically and mentally broken.
Left with nothing of his former self, Strange seeks out and finds “The Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton), a powerful mystic who teaches Strange about the other planes of existence, the multiverse, and ways in which the doctor can manipulate it all. He dives into his tutelage, unaware at first of the dangers that follow and of the dark beings who Strange will ultimately come to fight, namely Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a master of sorcery who uses his powers to bring the darker world crashing down onto ours.
Adapted from the comics by director Scott Derrickson and his writing partner, C. Robert Cargill, and with an assist from screenwriter John Spaihts, Doctor Strange is a breath of fresh air for anyone growing tired of the typical stories that begin a new thread in the ever-expanding MCU. All of these stories and new directions have grown this universe into a veritable catalog of characters, each one feeling smaller and smaller by comparison. What Derrickson and his team have done here is successfully adapt a character that, for once, can expand mentally to stand up against that growing universe. For once we’re given a character that has the capability of making this world a little more manageable.
Before we get to all that, though, we’re introduced to Dr. Stephen Strange, a character the screenwriters here have painted with a dark, gray hue. While Tony Stark was and always shall be arrogant in the face of great danger, Strange is arrogant in more serious manner. You completely understand the alienation he’s developed around himself, particularly in his relationship with fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). In fact, The Ancient One sees more of Kaecilius in her newest pupil than she sees herself or anyone more morally sound. Strange rides a fine line between hero and villain, and, though the film never explores this fully, the idea of Strange’s darkness is ever-present.
That isn’t to say Doctor Strange is through-and-through a dark film compared to other outings in the MCU. The film’s unconventional structure is found in its characters as well as its action and humor, those key staples that make Marvel movies the event pictures that they are. Derrickson and his team accomplish almost masterful work in both of these departments delivering shocking blasts of atypical action right along with surprising bouts of genuine comedy. The shifts in tone are somewhat jarring, but the success of every, individual element here makes this minor flaw all the easier to brush aside.
It also helps that Doctor Strange comes with an alarmingly gifted cast, very likely the best, all-around cast the MCU has seen to date. Cumberbatch headlines with ease, the character he injects into Strange fleshing the man out in remarkable ways. This honestly isn’t a character who will be beloved from frame one, and Cumberbatch allows that darkness and ego to come through in every expression and every sarcastic jab. The verbal spars we’re likely to see between Strange & Stark are bound to be as epic as any world-ending battle.
Swinton leads the supporting cast with an inherent strength, her performance here seeming to expand her character even more than the film’s screenplay. You know there’s a vast history about The Ancient One we’re not being told, but Swinton’s regal attitude and natural delivery of information certainly makes her worth wondering about. Likewise the villainous role Mikkelsen fills, the actor and screenwriters making you fully aware and understanding of Kaecilius’ motivations. Also worth noting are Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, a fellow student of the arts who teams up with Strange, and Benedict Wong as Wong, a protector of the mystical books and relics Strange finds at his new teaching grounds.
Everyone turns in stellar performances across the board, just icing on the incredible cake being offered up in Doctor Strange. It’s a film about expanding one’s self in an already gigantic world, but it’s also a supremely accomplished take on the MCU origin story. While so many of them seem to be following the vanilla plain, cookie cutter dynamic that’s growing more and more banal with each entry Doctor Strange is that perfectly weird example that refreshes our excitement for this universe. We’re sure to fall back into the norm from time to time, but just knowing the MCU has works as daring and unexpected as Doctor Strange hidden up its sleeves makes it all worthwhile. Here’s hoping that magic finds its way into this universe again very soon.