Benedict Cumberbatch is everywhere, and I don’t even mind. Sometimes Khan and sometimes Sherlock Holmes, occasionally historic and periodically period piece, Cumberbatch now arrives as the latest name actor to populate the Marvel Universe. As mangled Dr. Stephen Strange, Cumberbatch shines with an American accent, action figure moves, and a magnetic, sardonic sense of vicious humor. For fans longing to see what happens when the Marvel Studios’ lens is turned toward the mystical corners of the comic universe, Doctor Strange is just the mind-bending, faith-and-science combo that they’ve been hoping for.
Strange is a ‘class A’ jerk (and gifted surgeon) before a traffic accident mutilates his hands and leaves him unable to grip anything. Exhausting his medical options, he heads to Kamar-Taj where he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her other Masters, chiefly Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejifor). Before he can fully be indoctrinated in the ways of the Mystic Arts, Kaecilius (Madds Mikkelsen) and his hench-wizards blow into town and cause all kinds of trouble.
What follows is a mind-bending spectacle of epic proportions that seems more grounded than the visuals of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, highlighting the way that writer/director Scott Derrickson has kept the world we can see closely wound to the spiritual one in his previous films. While this film takes us into spiritual dimensions that seem inspired by LSD (and given Marvel’s background with the title, seem probable), it also has a darkly funny and poignant take on humanity, spouting witty near Kung Fu-isms that seem to be Matrix-like morals we’d get if we blended Jesus, Buddha, and Gandhi together.
Is it derivative? Well, no, but it certainly reeks of the Marvel Formula for a standalone story of our heroes, both well known and obscure. We might even recognize that Strange solves the ‘big’ problem in the film by making the same choice that Tony Stark does in The Avengers… even if he does so in a more humorous, less final, way. We might even say that Doctor Strange (gasp!) seems to echo not just the Marvel use of pattern-making for debuts, but that first modern hero film (when we switched from a ‘white’ knight to a slightly muddy, gray hero with issues): Batman Begins. That is not, however, to say that I didn’t enjoy or appreciate the film because I did.
When the Ancient One tells Strange to “forget everything you know,” we realize he’s about to have his mind blown. When she tells him that he will never have control until he relinquishes control, we might hear Jesus telling his disciples to let go of their lives to find them (Luke 9:24). When she tells him that he has tried everything he knows, everything scientifically possible, and now he wants to ignore the mystical possibilities, we can see the development of a person’s faith – or the journey toward recognition – in every person, not just in a Marvel superhero. All of that is to say that Derrickson has imbued this film with more than the formula even if, underneath some of the more meaty parts, the skeleton remains the same.
Disney’s plus-size special features include the audio commentary by Derrickson, deleted scenes, and a lighter gag reel. But on the Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD, audiences will also get “A Strange Transformation” (basically, the making of featurette) plus “Strange Company” (a more nuanced cast’s take on doing a Marvel film), “The Fabric of Reality” (the set assembly), a look at the Phase 3 ideas brewing (Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and, of course, Infinity War), and the unexpected laugh looking at Thor and his roommate in “Team Thor: Part 2.”