As I emerged from a period of mourning over the recent election, I headed for what I knew would provide the perfect antidote—a matinee screening of Dr. Strange starring the elegant and resourceful Benedict Cumberbatch. The Big Screen and plenty of popcorn—it was sure to raise my spirits. Oh and it did it!
From the first moment of director Scott Derrickson’s cinematically opulent version of the Marvel classic, I was hooked, fully engaged, doors of perception flying off their hinges. The set-up is as old as Faust.
Genius neurosurgeon Stephen Strange possesses uncanny powers of dexterity (with an ego to match). Yet he hungers for more—more challenges, more conquests, more of everything.
As played by Cumby, Dr. Strange is also wickedly sexy, playful, arrogant, fanatical, and a collector of expensive timepieces. Well, here’s the deal: en route to a dressy Long Island fundraiser, checking MRI results on his Bluetooth video, his speeding car veers into an oncoming truck and tumbles over a cliff. In the fiery crash his hands are crushed.
Waking in the hospital, Strange is told by his colleague (his surgical virtuosity has gained him the esteem, and affections, of a fellow MD played by Rachel McAdams) that his hands have been reconstructed using dozens of titanium pins. Strange does not take this news well. Growling with rage he tells her that he could have done the procedure better himself.
Pacing in his loft, anguished over his trembling, scarred hands, Strange begins ransacking the world’s data banks for a cure, some way of regaining the use of his once-skilled hands. The wounded healer, e.g. Amfortas in Parsifal, is one of those Jungian archetypes impossible to resist, even in a glorified CGI-driven comic book.[See the Hands of Orlac, a 1924 German silent film starring Conrad Veidt as a brilliant concert pianist who loses his hands in a train accident. Unfortunately the newly transplanted hands he acquires belonged to a murderer, and you can see where this might lead.]
Strange’s search for a miracle eventually leads, as it must, to Katmandu, where a mysterious face emerges from the crowd. It is Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a protege of an all-powerful sorceress called The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton rocking an utterly perfect shaved head). Well, anyway, this sorceress possesses the means to reshape space and travel through time. She agrees to accept Strange as a pupil, with Mordo as his mentor.
From the start, the movie lets us know that we are in for some fun, as well as astonishing visuals. As Strange is shown to his monastic cell, Mordo gives him a piece of paper on which is written the word shambala. “What is this, my mantra?” Strange sneers. “No,” replies Mordo, “it’s the wifi password. . . . We’re not savages.” And so Strange begins his training. Multi-dimensional martial arts, creation of wormholes using hands as shape-shifting wands, and learning to create fiery spheres that unzip one reality into another. Strange is deeply intrigued, but still cocky.
Meeting the keeper of the Library, Wong, (played with impeccable deadpan by Benedict Wong), Cumby quips “Wong? Just Wong?” You mean like Beyoncé? Cher?” he mumbles on, “Bono?” and finally “Eminem?.” A few scenes later we catch Wong listening to Beyoncé while he works.
The film winks at us, announcing that however deep and metaphysical its pretext— the arrogant physician learning the secrets of true wisdom in the mystic East—it’s still having fun in much the way that the first Ironman refused to take itself too seriously. Both the Ironman films and Dr. Strange soar on the multi-faceted gifts of their lead stars. Robert Downey Jr and Cumberbatch both blend attractively odd looks and split-second comic timing. They are ace physical actors who can nonetheless convince us of their anguish and rage. In short, here are leading men we will follow anywhere.
What Dr. Strange does take seriously are its eye-popping visuals which owe a huge debt to Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Cityscapes fold and twist like geisha fans. Spatial dimensions splinter and multiply like kaleidoscopic glass. Write it off as CGI kid’s stuff if you will, but these effects are gorgeous, inventive, and neuron-thrillingly psychedelic. In a word, awesome.
But of course, there’s got to be a villain in all of this astral ambience. And for that there’s the deliciously psychotic Mads Mikkelson, playing a time jumper named Kaecilius, who’s out to thwart the serene balance of the Ancient One’s multi-verse by stealing one of the mystical keys to immortality.
Cumby throws on a cape, a carefully manicured goatee, and the film soars to a final insanely explosive confrontation. Oh and there’s much more, all of it juicy, but I won’t spoil it. I will tell you to stay for the credits, in which a little scenario pops up that pretty much guarantees a sequel. Yummy!
There are three strands in play in Dr. Strange. The ensemble acting, led by the gracefully innovative Cumberbatch. The special effects dazzle, pushing us to the edge of what we’ve ever seen before and pinning us there. And best of all the glee of fully suspending disbelief for two hours while we’re being taken for a ripping great ride.