Created by Steve Ditko, Doctor Strange was an authentically odd character in the Marvel universe of the 1960s. Aptly, he debuted in the “Strange Tales” comic. The character almost perfectly encapsulated Ditko’s idiosyncratic, surreal pencil work, even more so than his better known co-creation, Spiderman. Complementing Ditko’s art, Stan Lee scripted the character as a hybrid mixture of Jungian archetypes with a theosophist cocktail of Eastern mysticism and Egyptian mythology. When other artists took over Doctor Strange after Ditko’s departure, it never had quite the same texture, and quickly became bland before descending into parody as the good doctor could be found in superhero team-ups with the likes of Hulk and Spiderman (!)
A pulp mystic, the character hardly seemed like a viable nominee for big screen treatment, and when Doctor Strange (2016) was announced as the next Marvel movie, the prospects didn’t look hopeful, considering director Scott Derrickson’s execrable resume. Surprisingly, Derrickson and his co-writers went straight to Ditko and Lee’s original source material, delivering an entertainingly psychedelic production, which is helped by actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, Rachel McAdams, the ever reliable Mads Mikkelsen, and Tilda Swinton.
As much as Robert Downey, Jr. embodies Iron Man, Cumberbatch does the same for this surgeon with the Trump-sized ego. However, an accident leaves Doc’s precious surgical hands mutilated, prompting him to seek enlightenment via the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, filling in for David Carradine), Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong). Before you can say Expecto Patronum, Strange sees the light and transforms into Chandu the Magician heading to the next Hare Krishna meeting. Despite the here-we-go-again St. Paul conversion myth, it plays out much more uniquely, viscerally, and tongue-in-cheek than one might expect. As Strange perfects his new metaphysical trade, the CGI actually enhances the narrative, as opposed to distracting us from it—and, yes, see it in 3D, because that’s the best route for trippy 60s symbolism. Derrickson and company faithfully recreate and expand upon Ditko’s peculiar brand of surrealism and the havoc they wreak with illusionary imagery from the mirror universe is refreshingly off-kilter.
In a rarity for something churned out by Marvel, the director and team have been given room to play outside of conveyor-belt dictates. The fun they have is contagious, but such a subject can only be as good as its villain. Fortunately, they have one in the outlaw mystic Kaecilius (Mikkelsen) who engages in a phantasmagoric battle with Strange on the streets of New York (aided considerably by Michael Giacchino’s galvanizing score). Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius could very well be his astral, Dark Dimension, bony version of Hannibal Lecter (and shame on those who missed that late series, which rendered the Anthony Hopkins/Jonathan Demme version obsolete), delivering his hocus-pocus dialogue with such aridity, he scares the hell out of you just by speaking. Mikkelsen is cast well (although underused) against Cumberbatch’s in-the-know remote wit. Likewise, McAdams is smartly cast as Strange’s ex-girlfriend who literally assists in his physical and metaphysical healing. The actors, coupled with visuals blatantly inspired by MC Escher, give Doctor Strange an all too uncommon individuality. This is not the Avengers taking turns pounding away at big shiny black, metallic thingamajigs. Rather, the good doctor, with his cloak of levitation, takes his battles to the realm of pop nightmares, which makes the late hint to an inevitable Avengers tie-in all the more disappointing. Is it weird? Nah, but it’s an empyrean burlesque and, for this studio, that is a surprising treat.