Doctor Strange. Need a great escape this week? On the one hand Marvel Studios’ fourteenth big screen Marvel entry is very much a product of the Marvel Comics of Stan Lee. Audiences just saw a similar origin story early this year in Deadpool, and we’ve seen similar stories from Daredevil, Spider-man, and Hulk, as well as in the DC Universe in Batman Begins and Green Lantern. Yet in its first act you realize Doctor Strange is a movie a tier above The Avengers and Justice League member films. It also competes meaningfully in the mashed-up sci-fi and fantasy realm alongside Guardians of the Galaxy. As to sci-fi in its opening act Doctor Strange makes any visual amazement found in the twisty cityscapes of The Matrix trilogy or Inception pretty much irrelevant by comparison. And when you take the best actors around and put them together you’ve upped the ante for not only the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but suddenly every forthcoming superhero genre effort has a new benchmark to aspire to.
Everything Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, The Hobbit, The Imitation Game, Star Trek Into Darkness) touches turns to gold. His Doctor Stephen Strange is all of Dr. House, M.D., and Sherlock Holmes. And he transforms into an Eastern mystic with a vibe and look that assures us future roles that years ago would have gone to Max Von Sydow or Vincent Price will continue to have a ready actor to fill their shoes.
This may be the best recent use of 3D in the theater since the last Transformers entry. Viewing it in 3D is a must, from Doctor Strange’s spell weapons to a world colliding with an amped up Spirograph meets Kaleidoscope-infused reality, conflicts on Salvador Dali paintings come to life and M.C. Escher and Labyrinth-inspired battlefields, and on to journeys through distant outer space and beyond time, crisp clarity and beautiful cinematography reveals modern effects at their best thanks to the production of Kevin Feige, who has coordinated everything Marvel for both Disney and Twentieth Century Fox, and director of photography Ben Davis (Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Kick-Ass, Stardust, Layer Cake).
The humorous bits are less here than perhaps in other Marvel films, yet the audience will be in lock step the entire way as we were with the fun in Ant-Man. What should amaze the most about Marvel Studios’ success is how Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, and now Doctor Strange (plus perhaps Deadpool)–rooted in second tier characters–have risen to become the cream of the MCU. Who could have predicted that? Is it because we all have preconceptions of what we want to see with the major classic superheroes, so we are always likely to be a bit disappointed, and these stories we know less of have more of a chance to dazzle us?
Beyond Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton is stunning as a spiritual leader called The Ancient One who helps Strange move beyond the damages he causes to himself in an avoidable auto accident (don’t text and drive, doc). She steals each frame she steps into, even scenes with the charismatic Cumberbatch. His compatriot is Mordo played with presence by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children of Men, Serenity, The Martian), and Wong–a defender straight out of TNT’s Librarian’s TV series–is solidly acted by Benedict Wong (The Martian, Kick-Ass 2, Prometheus). You may have a double take thinking Strange will surely refer to a colleague and ex-lover played by Rachael McAdams (Wedding Crashers, State of Play, Sherlock Holmes) as Irene Adler, since McAdams played opposite the other famous Sherlock Holmes in the recent big-screen Robert Downey, Jr. Holmes films.
Mads Mikkelson has become the next big thing after first coming to our attention in the Bond film Casino Royale. With his role as the villain Kaecilius in Doctor Strange and a key role in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in December, this will be a big year that surely propels him even further ahead in the eyes of audiences. Even smaller roles are well done, including performances by Benjamin Bratt (Law and Order) and Michael Stuhlbarg (Men in Black III).
You will marvel at the costuming, particularly with the detail of the film quality, thanks to Academy Award-winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne (Hamlet, Elizabeth, The Phantom of the Opera, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy). And Michael Giacchino is finally back with a superb musical score more on par with his work on The Incredibles than more recent soundtrack efforts.
Expect to see Cumberbatch and Strange return in Thor: Ragnarok and The Avengers: Infinity War, suggested by the appearance of an Infinity Stone, two post-credits codas and a James Bondian “Doctor Strange Will Return” closing title. About the only thing that doesn’t work is the second coda, a bit of a disappointment similar to the end of Green Lantern.
Among the best of this century’s superhero movies and joining the top echelon of Marvel films, Doctor Strange is in theaters now.