“Forget everything you think you know,” Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a mystical warrior tells the titular character in the film Dr Strange. The same can be said for the film itself, one of Marvel’s most original and freshest big screen adaptations since the first Iron Man, Avengers or X-Men films (on the small screen Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage have recently outplayed Marvel films by far). I’ve reluctantly become a fan of the superhero genre but the proliferation of Avengers films and their standalones are, to be kind, stale.
Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a genius, world-famous neurosurgeon, who is reminiscent of Dr House because the former too, is a brilliant but A-grade asshole. Strange, while brilliant, is egotistical and insensitive as demonstrated by the way he treats his ex-girlfriend, Christine (Rachel McAdams), who’s also a surgeon. But a terrible car accident ruins his hands and Stephen becomes a broken recluse, obsessed with finding a fix for something that cannot be fixed. He lashes out at those, like Christine, who care most, and alienates himself while spending all his money on surgery after surgery.
When his physiotherapist tells him of a patient who was paralysed but somehow managed to walk again, Stephen finds some hope. Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) is vague about how he was healed save to hint that it was a spiritual rather physical cure. He refers Stephen to a religious site in Kathmandu, Nepal, and Stephen puts his life in a backpack in a last chance bid to get his life back. When he reaches the secret compound called Kamar-Taj, he scoffs at what he finds. A bald-headed woman in robes, called The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), spews cryptic and mystic wisdoms, talking about other dimensions and astral projection. Stephen the scientist struggles to believe but is willing to try anything. And so, he becomes a student sorcerer to learn how to use magic not only to heal himself, but also to fight a group of sorcerers led by a powerful magician and former student of The Ancient One, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson), who wants to destroy three sanctums that protect Earth from Dormannu, an evil entity from a dark dimension.
Dr Strange is different from any other Marvel movie to date, both visually and in terms of the plot. The character of Stephen Strange is similar to Tony Stark/Iron Man. Both only become ‘heroes’ after horrible accidents that nearly kill them. Both are arrogant, charming, and witty. But instead of being saved by technology, or changed by a mutation, or being some kind of alien being, Strange gains his power from the spiritual realm. The sorcerers create gorgeous, flaming weapons from thin air. The otherworldly dimensions and spells are hypnotically beautiful. And the magic is something else altogether, more Inception than Harry Potter, using Eastern mysticism to bend reality. It’s rather worth watching on a big screen for the cinematography and mind-bending graphics.
Benedict Cumberbatch is smart, witty, and oodles of fun. His flaws are engaging; his character a surprise and marvel to discover. Strange almost deserves his suffering for the way he’s treated people, yet Cumberbatch makes him easy to sympathise with. Tilda Swinton is a clever choice for The Ancient One. Few actresses are as, well weird. However, her casting can’t be discussed without mentioning the whitewashing controversy. In the comics, The Ancient One is an Asian man. Director Scott Derrickson defended the change saying that making the character a woman is an inversion, basically a feminist statement. But surely that same statement could have been made by changing the character into an Asian woman? The film isn’t a complete whitewash – Chiwetel Ejiofor is a main character – Mordo – Strange’s trainer, while the keeper of the library is an Asian man, Wong (Benedict Wong). Still, for a story that draws so heavily on Eastern culture, it leans towards being appropriative. White directors still appear to be oblivious to the systemic racism in Hollywood so it’s imperative to keep calling it out.
Dr Strange is a welcome, fresh addition to the Marvel universe (this is the studio’s 14th film). A crossover appears to be in the works (wait for the usual post-credits and post-post credits scenes to find out more). “It’s an attempt to create not only a broader universe for Marvel characters and Doctor Strange himself to inhabit, but it really is an attempt to push the ball forward when it comes to what audiences can expect to enjoy from tent-pole movies,” says director Scott Derrickson. The film topped the U.S. box office on Friday night on opening weekend, making an estimated $82 million. For someone who isn’t a fan of sequels, this film left me longing for more of this wonderful character.
Director: Scott Derrickson
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelson
Rating: 3½ out of 5
SA release date: 04 November 2016