Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE Is Supremely Entertaining

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I can’t honestly say when I first discovered Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, in the pages of Marvel comics. It might have been in the early days of The Defenders, where he teamed up with Namor of Atlantis, the Hulk, and the Silver Surfer. It might have been in a cameo with Spider-man in Marvel Team-Up or The Avengers. I know I didn’t start with the Steve Ditko classics. I was a huge fan of the Roy & Dann Thomas run with artist Jackson Guice. Those issues are etched in my brain forever. That run was always going to be the perfect embodiment of Doctor Strange as far as I was concerned, until this lanky bloke named Benedict Cumberbatch came along.

MARVEL’S DOCTOR STRANGE is the latest entry in Disney/Marvel’s ambitious and spectacularly successful cinematic universe. Cumberbatch hides his perfect British elocution behind a veneer of East Coast American snark as a pompous, self-absorbed, world-class surgeon. His office romance with the young and pretty ER Nurse Christine Palmer, played by Rachel McAdams, fuels his ego. He soon ends up in a horrific car crash, his hands pulped, nerves severed, career ended. Following the classic Doctor Strange origin, he seeks out every remote possibility of fixing his hands, eventually ending up in Kathmandu -- you know, like the Bob Seeger song? That’s as much of the plot you get from me, because if you’re a real Doctor Strange fan you already know the rest, if you’re a Marvel Cinematic Universe fan you’ll see it anyway, and if you aren’t in the slightest bit interested you’re probably not even reading this sentence, so the rest of us will move on. Follow me, True Believers!

So here’s what some of you want to know: YEAH BUDDY! IT’S FREAKIN’ SWEET! The casting is inspired: Cumberbatch, of course. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo, Strange’s nemesis in the comics and comrade on the screen, gives the good guys a bit of depth and variety, and leaves the door open for a bigger role in Doctor Strange II. The actual villain in this film is a renegade mystic named Kaecilius, played by Mads Mikkelsen with sinister coolness. Benedict Wong as Wong, because casting agent shave a sense of humor, and also because he’s one of the rare Asian castings that isn’t wasted by typical Asians-in-American-cinema clichés. There’s no chop-socky ninja crap, no “Ah so, me Engrish no so good,” dialogue, and he’s not the Doctor’s butler, fetching him tea and crumpets and mystic artifacts whenever Strange snaps his fingers. Hell, Doctor Strange is the Sorcerer Supreme – why would he even need a manservant? He can just magic anything he wants! Or can he?

You see, Marvel, to this point, has been extremely cautious about calling any of their characters “magical.” Thor, for example, is the God of Thunder from ancient Norse Mythology. Acknowledging his divinity would also mean acknowledging his powers are magic-based, by default. I think Marvel wants to avoid any controversy with the religious right. They quickly if somewhat understatedly labelled Thor as an “interdimensional alien,” because for some reason aliens don’t scare the uber-religious types quite as much as magic. Harry Potter, in some people’s eyes, is witchcraft and Satanism. Marvel, under Disney, is not likely going to push the notion of gods, small ‘g’ or capital. DOCTOR STRANGE, does, however, throw around terms like “sorcerer” and “mystic,” but softens their impact with references to other dimensions in the multiverse. Quantum Theory is the scientific word for magic, but don’t tell the Muggles.

While DOCTOR STRANGE’s magic might offend some, more people have an issue with the member of the cast I’ve conspicuously not mentioned yet. Tilda Swinton plays The Ancient One, Strange’s mentor, as a bald androgynous person of indeterminable age, but clearly not obviously ancient. Director and screenwriter Scott Derrickson has been accused of “whitewashing” the character because the character in the comics was always an extremely old Asian male. I find the accusation a bit silly, considering he has an Asian in Benedict Wong and an African Englishman in Mordo. There was certainly room in the script for a feminine presence, and Nurse Palmer wasn’t going to cut it when the magical sparks really start to fly. That said, there’s no reason they couldn’t have cast an older Asian gentleman in the role and used Clea, another love interest of strange from the Dark Dimension, where her father, Dormammu, reigns. I think Tilda Swinton would have made an excellent Clea, and veteran James Hong (who played a similar ancient Chinese wizard in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA) or the younger but always enjoyable Tzi Ma could have played The Ancient One. I’m not strictly opposed to colorblind casting, as long as they can make the characters believable in the scope of the story. I mean, Denzel Washington is great, but I don’t want to see him play Superman. As much as I enjoy Matt Damon I don’t want him playing the Black Panther, either. Change is good. Change for change’s sake often is not.

I’m an easy mark for Marvel movies and especially for the title character, but DOCTOR STRANGE is a visceral thrill ride that never really lags even during the origin sequence. The special effects are gorgeous, the costumes are excellent and the soundtrack is lush. Don’t worry, the satanic elements in the world are too busy with the Road to the White House to steal your soul through your 3D glasses, and Swinton plays her part well despite not being an Asian man. Benedict Cumberbatch is incredible, and carries the film with panache. Marvel has another big moneymaker on its hands, and I hope that they can extend Cumberbatch beyond the second Strange solo film and presumably a couple of appearances in the big throw down with Thanos when the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally gets to that event. I look forward to seeing Cumberbatch and Ejiofor in opposition down the line, hopefully with Tom “Loki” Hiddleston involved.

Grade: 
5.0 / 5.0