Doctor Strange premiered in theaters mid-November. After two dominant weeks, the film is holding steady with a solid 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. That means Marvel proves again, beyond doubt, what they can do without fail: translate the image from the page deftly to the silver screen, and take a character beloved for decades among comic fans and cross him over into iconic status at the box office.
The plot goes a little something like this…puffed up surgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) loses the use of his hands in an accident and his practice — and his purpose in life — along with that. Desperate to heal himself, he stumbles upon the case of Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a paralytic that miraculously regained the power to walk, who spurs Strange to journey to Tibet. There, the good doc learns magic, humility, and the mind-bending secrets of reality from the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and the steely Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
It takes some time and tough love, but the Doctor (as he wishes to be called) turns out to be a natural — on top of a recalcitrant and voracious reader. Reading everything and playing with all the magic totems he can get his hands on, Strange becomes exposed to a looming Galactus-level threat from the Dark Dimension brought on by nefarious and power-hungry ex-student Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).
All that is straight from the Marvel playbook, as well as requisite to any origin story, but the elements are appropriated strongly for the heartfelt story of Strange’s quest for healing and self-discovery. And there is no better choice than Benedict Cumberbatch for the role, a divine revelation in his portrayal and understanding of the depth and dimensions to Doctor Strange, his personality, and his struggles.
Equally, Scott Derrickson (known for supernatural thrillers like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Deliver Us From Evil, but who tried previously to cement his name with another CGI spectacle, The Day the Earth Stood Still) is the man best tailored to channel the spiritual theme of finding meaning and fulfillment. It’s a reflection of his own beliefs, which normally figure into his films. With Doctor Strange, Derrickson helms an organic, well-crafted story that is expressive of those beliefs without being canting or heavy-handed.
The score is something further to boast about. Composer Michael Giacchino relies on music that they admit is baroque and creates a regal and classical tempo. Similar to The Third Man‘s zither, the choice of instruments is unorthodox for a superhero blockbuster — evocative more of powdered wigs and Jane Austen than sorcery — but is certainly remarkable, and an added distinction for Doctor Strange in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Visually, the film relies heavily (as expected) on CG effects, made possible by a crew as big as the population of a small country, to bring the Multiverse to breathtaking life. Particularly early on, when the Ancient One hurls Strange across dimensions, visuals rival anything Kubrick or Matrix in trippiness. Definitely worth paying the extra buck or two to see in 3D.
In time, Doctor Strange should be seen as a true classic and a landmark in the mighty Marvel movie canon. For now, it is a wonder to behold still in theaters for the holidays. Even if you’ve already seen it, see it like a moment caught in a loop — to be lived again and again…without bargaining.