Its latest, the giddily enjoyable “Doctor Strange,” is part of Marvel’s strategy for world domination, yet it’s also so visually transfixing, so beautiful and nimble that you may even briefly forget the brand.
You don’t need to know Dr. Strange to know his story. A tale of hubris — with foolish pride and an inevitable fall — it opens in contemporary New York, where Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), is flying high as a super surgeon. An accomplished but arrogant surgeon, Strange only takes on patients who will help him increase his fame or enlarge his bank account. After a crippling accident, he abandons his old life (partly embodied by Rachel McAdams, dewy and funny) for a grand exploit, travelling simultaneously into his soul and to the misterioso Far East. He meets leaders and fellow travellers, studies books and unlocks secrets, in time becoming a superhero with magical powers, a dubious goatee and a flirty cape that dries his tears.
Dr Strange first popped out of the great head of Steve Ditko, the comic-book visionary who brought him to life with Stan Lee (a pairing best known for Spider-Man). There is the origin story which perfectly encapsulates the superhero’s character and first conflict to the point that once it is finished – once he has moved from non-superhero to masked vigilante – he is frozen in that state forever. The superhero’s origin is the most dynamic version of the character and everything after is just some variation on that original theme. Call it the Batman-type.
Cumberbatch gives an impressive and daunting performance, effortlessly conveying each beat of Strange’s emotional journey—from defeated man of science to triumphant sorcerer supreme—while remaining consistently human throughout. Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Strange’s ally Mordo) are similarly impressive: Both would be fascinating to watch for the way they move in their gorgeous, layered robes alone.
Only Rachel McAdams’ Dr Christine Palmer is wasted. As Strange’s love interest, she is never a mere damsel in distress, but she serves a little individual purpose, apart from providing her lover someone to apologise.
Thanks in part to its charming cast, and despite its serious intentions, Doctor Strange is a pleasantly silly film, with plenty of humour hiding amid all the reality-distorting special effects and high-flying action. The movie’s smart resolution to Strange’s inner conflict is better seen than described.