by Patrick Bromley
I can still remember back when the first Iron Man was a huge hit back in 2008 and Marvel announced they would be making a Thor movie, I thought to myself "Sure, Iron Man I get, but there's no way the average moviegoer is going to accept a movie about Norse gods fighting and Asgard and rainbow bridges and all the geeky stuff that's part of the character's mythology." And then Thor was released and it, too, was a hit. Then a few years later Guardians of the Galaxy was announced and I once again suspected Marvel might be overestimating the mainstream's tolerance for the kind of goofy shit that regular comic book readers willingly accept on the regular: outer space, talking raccoons, talking trees that speak only three words to represent everything they're saying. Once again, I was gladly proven wrong and Guardians was one of the highest-grossing films of 2014.
Well, now here's Doctor Strange, Marvel's latest attempt to launch one of their characters and hopefully kickstart a franchise, and it's the nerdiest movie they've made yet. That's the best thing about it. Without the super nerdy stuff, this would be just another superhero origin story. At times, it still is.
From that plot summary through its marketing campaign, there was very little that had me excited about Doctor Strange outside of my own curiosity -- how would Marvel make what I would argue is one of its less "accessible" characters work in the context of a mainstream blockbuster? Plus, there were all sorts of things holding me back from getting too excited about the movie. Beyond just my superhero fatigue, I never really read nor got into Doctor Strange as a character in the comics. While I recognize that he is very talented, Benedict Cumberbatch hasn't yet give the performance that makes me say "yes, I love that guy" (I haven't watched much Sherlock, so there). Director Scott Derrickson has a body of work that for me has ranged from decent to not very good. More than anything, though, I suspected that Doctor Strange would lean heavily into the mystical, the supernatural, the cosmic, and that's always been a side of the Marvel Universe that didn't much interest me even in my hardcore comic reading days.
The good news is that Doctor Strange upends most of my reservations. Cumberbatch is good -- he always is -- but also allowed to be more charming and likable than he's usually afforded the chance to be on screen. Derrickson proves to be an inspired choice. A devout Christian, his films have often dealt with themes of faith and belief, and he brings those same ideals to Doctor Strange to make a movie that, while not explicitly Christian, is still very much about faith and opening ourselves up to the possibilities of powers greater than ourselves. More than that, though, is how Derrickson, the movie's screenwriters and the VFX team have conceived of inventive and truly spectacular visuals to supplement what is otherwise a very familiar story. There are mind-bending chases through cities that continue turning and re-forming themselves, trips into the cosmos for a brief detour we'll call Black Light Poster: The Movie and a genuinely inspired climax that both works as an antidote to the endless destruction we've seen in the majority of superhero movies and a case of a hero defeating his enemy not through a display of strength or firepower but through intellect, creativity and ability. It's really cool.
Not that everyone escaped unscathed. Mikkelsen, through no fault of his own, is playing a generic and forgettable mystical bad guy with very little motivations beyond "destroy your world!" It's cool to see him on screen, but the film makes little use of his talent. Rachel McAdams is given another in her long line of thankless parts; she has good chemistry in her scenes with Cumberbatch, but her role consists primarily of a) being concerned, b) being confused and c) supporting the male lead. She's too good to keep getting cast in these roles, and Marvel has too long a history of sidelining their female leads. She's Pepper Potts and Betty Ross and Jane Foster and, to a large extent, a pre-TV Peggy Carter.