“Might I offer you some advice? Forget everything that you think you know,” quotes secondary protagonist Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in the newest Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film, “Doctor Strange” (2016). Fourteen movies in the ever-expanding MCU need refreshment after the large-scale superhero clash in the previous “Captain America: Civil War” (2016). While some trepidation when walking into these formulaic films is understandable, thankfully this movie does not fall victim to the constraints imposed by its franchise.
“Doctor Strange,” which was released on Nov. 4, follows a master neurosurgeon, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who injures himself in a car crash that leaves his hands permanently disabled. After numerous unsuccessful surgeries, he ventures to Nepal and takes refuge in a secret monastery called Kamar-Taj. He trains in the mystic arts under The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and his newfound companion, Mordo, in the hopes of improving his condition. Meanwhile, he discovers that a renegade sorcerer, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), plots to overthrow their society and subjugate the world under his ideals.
The film’s most notable quality lies in its well-crafted effects. Director Scott Derrickson crafts a resplendent universe that feels larger than the MCU itself. Under his direction, time lapses, realities bend, buildings fold, surfaces become twisted and characters fight each other while warping through alternate dimensions and vivid seas of purples, greens and reds. These “Inception” (2010)-grade effects induce a feeling of distortion, which Derrickson intends. Fortunately, he doesn’t abuse the special effects, for he also gives the story proper attention.
Dr. Strange’s quest for self-redemption engages heavily in world-building yet doesn’t force it. Marvel movies (and their DC Comics counterparts) partake in this habit of prioritizing universe construction over delivering a satisfying narrative, but “Doctor Strange” does it naturally and in a fluid manner that keeps it relevant to the plot. It also feels more self-contained, with minimal references to the MCU and almost no setup for future films.
Though the film is visually astonishing, it also services its characters well. Cumberbatch impresses as the titular character, undergoing a compelling transformation from repugnant narcissist to altruistic protector. Though he is unlikable at first, he becomes more of a sympathetic figure as his character unravels. The insecurities and intellect that Cumberbatch so convincingly displays makes it easy to become invested in “Doctor Strange.” He shares similarities with Tony Stark in terms of personality but doesn’t become a carbon copy of him.
While Cumberbatch does headline the flick, the supporting cast does just as good of a job. Ejiofor plays Mordo with pinpoint anger and conviction, showing unwavering dedication to his ideals. He and Cumberbatch develop a good camaraderie. Swinton also does well with the material she’s given, commanding the screen as the omnipotent head sorcerer. Some of her lines veer more toward delivering exposition or overlong monologues on spirituality and time, but Swinton’s tremendous screen presence makes her pompous dialogue more bearable. Even Wong (Benedict Wong), a minor supporting character, steals his respective scenes with his stone-faced look and deadpan mannerisms.
This adventure has fun with itself and never becomes too serious. However, it sometimes chooses to have a little too much fun. Occasionally, the jokes either don’t hit their intended beat or flat-out disturb the tone of more serious scenes. None of them were overly flagrant, but they did, at times, detract from the movie.
Mikkelsen works his hardest with the material given. He plays great villain roles, most notably Bond villain Le Chiffre in “Casino Royale” (2006). As Kaecilius, however, he has neither much screen time nor ample character development. The villain is not insufferable by any measure, as he does have an interesting backstory and some nice juxtaposition with the main protagonist. However, the story sidelines him, making this character more of a missed opportunity rather than another MCU baddie.
Despite some issues concerning the villain and script, “Doctor Strange” thrives due to Derrickson’s strong directorial effort, a visually immaculate world and dedicated performances from its cast.