Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Stephen Strange, an arrogant neurosurgeon who is great at his job but terrible at everything else. He’s arrogant, rude, belittling, and selfish, and he’s mean to Rachel McAdams which is a shorthanded way of making a character instantly unlikeable. There’s a strong similarity to Cumberbatch’s take on Sherlock Holmes, but with a flawless American accent and also the added edge of an ambition Sherlock doesn’t possess. Strange is driven, and it’s his hubris and ambition that ultimately does him in. Reckless driving—the film includes a “Don’t text and drive” addendum—leads to a car crash which ruins Strange’s hands, ending his surgical career.
From here, Doctor Strange slides sideways into a world of magic and mysticism that consumes Strange just as medicine once did. The visuals are incredible—this is the most eye-popping Marvel movie ever, and the magic, here visualized as precise, geometric runes performed as a martial art, is stunning. Strange enters a world of alternate dimensions which allows director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) to imagine new worlds and new ways of viewing our own. From the moment Avengers Tower folds into Manhattan’s navel, you know you’re in for some real eye candy. And Derrickson’s background in horror shows in some genuinely creepy visuals.
Cumberbatch is TERRIFIC as Strange, as instantly indelible in the role as RDJ is as Iron Man, and bringing a similarly huge presence to the role—it’s going to be electric when those two meet. The strength of Doctor Strange rests entirely on Cumberbatch’s performance and the visuals, but Benedict Wong comes through as the secret MVP, his dust-dry performance as a fellow sorcerer—also named Wong—providing much of the film’s comedy.
And then there’s Tilda Swinton, and the controversy-laden role of the Ancient One. Within the mechanics of the film, the Ancient One works and Swinton is pretty great. She’s obviously enjoying herself and as reinvented for Swinton, the Ancient One is a sly, vaguely unsettling mentor. But given the movie’s mystical Asian roots, it cannot get away from the unfortunate Orientalism of the comics. It’s not as pronounced, and the biggest improvement is Wong’s character going from manservant to equal partner, but there is an undeniable Orientalist streak that none of the obvious tweaks can overcome. Doctor Strange has a lot working for it but it has this one, not insignificant, blemish.
On the other side there’s the angle taken in regard to Strange’s injury. There’s no magical cure. Strange does not get better. His hands are permanently damaged, and even with his magical ability, if put in a physical contest, he WILL lose. So Strange has to THINK, and compensate, and work around his injury. The parallel to those living with disabilities is explicit within the film, and it gives Strange, both the character and the movie, a unique and rewarding message for a superhero movie: Injury is not defeat, and that which you think makes you weak, may in fact be the source of your power.
So you just have to take the good with the bad. What works in Doctor Strange works REALLY WELL. Strange is fantastic and Cumberbatch sets a high bar for the next-gen Avengers being introduced over the next couple years. His dimension-hopping world of magic has a lot of potential to provide refreshing breaks from the city-destroying world of the Avengers—the way Strange handles his own city-destroying fight is inventive and clever.
However, Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer doesn’t really register, but then, Christine Palmer isn’t Strange’s signature love interest (that would be his wife, Clea). McAdams does bring some real emotion to the proceedings though, and she’s a good foil for the intolerably arrogant Strange. Likewise, Chiwetel Ejiofor checks the boxes as Strange’s frenemy Mordo, though Wong pretty well steals his thunder. But the real scene stealer? Strange’s magical cape. You thought a talking tree was cute? Or perhaps Ant-ony from Ant-Man? Forget it. Derrickson found a way to make a CAPE cute.
Here’s how good Doctor Strange is. Were it not for the Orientalism—which is no small thing—it would absolutely be better than Iron Man.