‘Dr. Strange’: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the cape

July 23, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Doctor Strange' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — You can’t blame folks for entering the 14th installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with superhero fatigue in an oversaturated genre.

But woe unto thee, all ye doubters — prepare to be converted. To quote Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), this is “Doctor Strange: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cape.”

In other words, “Doctor Strange” will restore your faith, however fleeting, in the superhero genre.

It’s arguably the year’s best superhero flick, better than “Civil War” and damn close to “Deadpool,” transcending the superhero genre to become something of a science-fiction gem combining elements from “The Matrix” (1999), “Harry Potter” (2001), “Batman Begins” (2005) and “Inception” (2008).

Perhaps it’s because we get a character’s full journey from his origin to his heroics. Perhaps it’s because there is a limited number of peripheral characters compared to the more crowded Marvel mash-ups of recent memory. Whatever the reason, keep this brand of superhero flicks coming!

Based on the 1963 comic book by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the film follows renowned yet cocky neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who conducts rock-star surgeries while living the penthouse life in Manhattan. But when an accident costs him the use of his hands, he asks a cured paraplegic (Benjamin Bratt) about the secret to healing: the Eastern mysticism of Kathmandu.

Thus, Strange heads to Asia to train under The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who teaches him to bend time and space alongside her faithful disciples Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong). But a danger looms in a former pupil named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who’s stolen vital mystical secrets to aid a dark intergalactic force who promises eternal life long after Earth’s sun burns out.

“Doctor Strange” succeeds as much as it does off the sheer strength of Cumberbatch as a performer. From his Emmy-winning role as Sherlock Holmes in TV’s “Sherlock” (2010) to his Oscar-nominated role as Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” (2014), Cumberbatch is easily one of best actors going today. As Dr. Strange, he not only nails an American accent, but is the snarkiest superhero since Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), charting a compelling character arc in his quest to control his massive ego.

Ex-lover Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) tries in vain to keep his ego in check, revealing that it wasn’t all that fun accompanying him to speeches on so-called “dates.” He thought it was romantic; she says it was all about him. While such moments serve as a great sounding board for Dr. Strange’s character development, Palmer herself feels underdeveloped — a shame for a talent like McAdams.

The same can be said for Mads Mikkelsen’s villain, Kaecilius. While this bodacious baddie is set up as the traitorous Benedict Arnold to battle Benedict Cumberbatch, he’s largely left off screen. This is totally understandable in Act One — this time is wonderfully spent investing us in the protagonist — but his exciting Act Two involvement quickly takes a backseat to intergalactic forces in Act Three.

Thankfully, the character development is robust for the mystical oracle of The Ancient One. While comic-book purists might scoff at changing the role’s race and gender — couldn’t they have cast an Asian actress? — the British actress they did cast has killer cred from South Korea’s “Snowpiercer.”

Oscar-winning chameleon Tilda Swinton (“Michael Clayton”) is awesomely mysterious as the spiritual sensei, rivaling Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus from “The Matrix” (1999) and Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul from “Batman Begins” (2005). There’s even a fun wink at the gender swap, as Cumberbatch goes to introduce himself to a wise Asian elder, only to turn with surprise to greet the bald Swinton.

Her performance coincides with the death of author Natalie Babbitt, who warned of immortality in “Tuck Everlasting” (1975). The eternity-seeking Swinton maintains a similar moral ambiguity, building to a most touching line: “Look at me, stretching one moment into a thousand just to watch the snow.”

Her faithful sidekicks only add to her aura, as Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong speak of her in worshipping tones of awe-struck devotion. The former embodies mystery as he tails Strange in the streets, only to deliver a hilariously unexpected Wi-Fi comment (“We’re not savages”). The latter is a book keeper of ancient texts who goes by a single name, a moniker that Strange teasingly compares to Beyoncé and Eminem, only to realize there are more esteemed historic examples like Aristotle.

In such moments, the script is insanely clever, having undergone multiple drafts by a slew of talented writers. After languishing in development hell since the 1980s, Thomas Dean Donnelly (“Sahara”) and Joshua Oppenheimer (“The Act of Killing”) took a stab at a screenplay in 2010, only to be rewritten by “Prometheus” writer Jon Spaihts and “Sinister” cohorts C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson.

Derrickson also directs here, delivering his fifth feature film after his daring debut “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” (2005), the doomed flop of a sci-fi remake with “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (2008), a return to horror form in “Sinister” (2012) and the star-studded thriller “Deliver Us From Evil” (2014).

In “Doctor Strange,” he shows his directorial chops right from the start. The first time we meet Dr. Strange in his initial hospital operation, Derrickson poetically shows Strange’s scalpel pull a bullet from a brain on a monitor screen, which then enters the reality of the frame in a 45-degree angle. Likewise, the first time we see the villain, Derrickson presents a beheading as a shadow on a wall, a more artful way of showing a gory event and a philosophical nod to Plato’s “Shadows on the Cave.”

Plato’s mind would have been blown by the film’s alternate realities (i.e. “2001: A Space Odyssey”). While some may praise Derrickson for turning the world on its side like “Inception,” the more impressive sequences are the trippy plunges into a 3D/IMAX wormhole that’s awesomely twisted.

It’s here that Derrickson taps into his own “Sinister” past to put the “strange” in “Doctor Strange,” as symbolic hands protrude like Polanski’s “Repulsion” (1965), each finger sprouting new tiny hands. This visual isn’t just for creep factor, it makes sense that Strange would have nightmares about hands.

These shocking special effects are balanced by hilarious CGI involving his Cloak of Levitation, which comes to Cumberbatch with the “chosen one” majesty of Arthur’s Excalibur. The personified cape recalls the magic carpet in “Aladdin” (1992), tugging Dr. Strange in certain directions, punishing bad guys with choke holds and finally resting upon his superhero shoulders for a clap-worthy hero shot.

These magical moments mix with the wonderfully weird for an almost religious experience, tapping into a spiritual, psychedelic “Tao of Strange” that’s refreshing to find in this often cookie-cutter genre.

Sadly, as you might expect, the movie eventually succumbs to Marvel’s more formulaic mandates. It forces Dr. Strange to be a classic rock savant during surgery — enough with the studio focus-grouped “Awesome Mixtapes,” they’re played out — and builds to an intergalactic battle that, while amusing in the vein of “Groundhog Day” or “Edge of Tomorrow,” ruins the mojo with brazen deus ex machina.

As the characters themselves say, “The bill always comes due.” More sequels must be set up, by order of the studio. It’d be nice if a filmmaker could make this badass movie and let it be, walking away like Ejiofor at the end saying, “I can no longer walk down this path.” But there he is, returning in the post-credits “button” scene for a nod to the comic books, ensuring his involvement in further installments.

Be that as it may. It’s part of the game. Even if we know more sequel mashups are coming, let’s pause for now and bask in the glory that is this delicious “Doctor Strange” origin story. For the most part, this enigmatic movie doesn’t feel anything like the previous Marvel entries — and that’s a compliment.

3-stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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