In Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange, an arrogant neurosurgeon who cares more about money and prestige than the hippocratic oath. When we first meet Dr. Strange, he’s in the operating room showcasing his knowledge of music trivia while he cavalierly cuts into a patient. Strange’s arrogance stems from the fact that he’s the best of his kind, and thus, he’s earned the right to be a prick. Later, we see him skillfully remove a bullet from the skull of another patient, and it’s a genuinely breathless moment, yet there’s no humanity behind Strange’s almost miraculous skill as a healer. But Strange’s arrogance gets the better of him when he’s severely injured in a car accident (from reckless driving) that threatens to permanently end his career as a surgeon. Then he goes on a quest for healing, to Nepal, where he meets a group of mystics that believe in the power of the mind to overcome the limits of the body.
Even though Doctor Strange doesn’t break any new ground as a comic book movie, it does succeed in refreshing the old beats we’ve come to expect from them. What are some of the worst things about comic book movies? A tendency toward expositional dialogue, and consequently a lack of visual storytelling; an indulgent, mindless approach to violence and conflict; a debilitating reliance on heavy-handed themes about good and evil, which have been recycled until they’ve worn thin; and a need to raise the stakes as high as they can be raised (the world will end if “X” doesn’t save it), until the stakes no longer matter. Doctor Strange minimizes most of these flaws, and at times even subverts them.
The film’s sense of humor goes a long way toward this, even if some of the jokes feel a bit lame. Example of a lame joke: When Mordo (one of the mystics, played with charisma by Chiwetel Ejiofor) hands Dr. Strange a card with the word “shamballa” written on it, and explains to a befuddled Strange that it’s the Wifi password. “We’re not savages,” he quips, with a silly grin on his face. But there are other moments of levity that are charming, that truly do lighten the mood. There’s a magical cape, for instance, that takes on a personality of its own, like something out of Harry Potter; or the banter between Strange and Benedict Wong’s character, the taciturn guardian of the library, who never smiles. For a film that focuses so much on big questions about existence and reality, Dr. Strange seldom feels heavy-handed.
Indeed, Doctor Strange actually evokes a sense of wonder about the world and the universe (and the multiverse), a feat I’d long given up hoping for in comic book movies. Strange often clumsily answers its questions with handy bumper-sticker-adages like, “Death is what gives life meaning,” but the fact that it ponders such questions, and the fact that director Scott Derrickson has the restraint to let even some of those questions linger (handy bromides aside), says a lot about his maturity as a filmmaker. Doctor Strange, with all its depictions of matter being bent and manipulated by mental energy and time being looped, recalls Christopher Nolan’s films Inception and Interstellar, but unlike Nolan, Scott Derrickson is content to marvel at the mysteries, where Nolan delights in creating puzzles we can’t solve.
Derrickson, who co-scripted with Jon Spaiht and C. Robert Cargill (his collaborator on the Sinister films), has always demonstrated a strong interest in the supernatural and in the workings of the metaphysical. His first feature was 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a combination horror movie-courtroom drama that was part The Exorcist and part Inherit the Wind. Emily Rose is an effective horror movie, even if it masquerades (barely) as propaganda for the Catholic Church. (Laura Linney must defend a priest accused of neglecting an alleged possessed girl, and she bases her closing arguments on the possibility of a supernatural realm: belief in things not seen.) And yet, even Emily Rose at times betrayed a certain lucid thinking (except when it was being sensationalistic). But Derrickson was a little more obvious about his religion then; a decade later, he’s perhaps less sure of himself, or perhaps his own views have simply gotten mixed into a much bigger Marvel-sized soup of beliefs.
We get the feeling that Doctor Strange is promulgating some kind of religious dogma, but its views on all things metaphysical feel more elemental: “Humanity longs for the eternal,” and “time is an insult” says the film’s chief villain, Kaecilius, played by Mads Mikkelsen (the eye-patch-wearing heavy in Casino Royale); Tilda Swinton, playing a powerful mystic referred to as the “Ancient One,” talks of “harnessing energy” and “making magic,” and Doctor Strange goes on a quest for physical healing using metaphysical means. That Doctor Strange is a brilliant neurosurgeon who must unlearn all his reliance on the laws of nature, in order to cultivate mystical powers, is a fairly obvious lesson. It's all sort of lingering in the air, incoherently, and thus the film falls somewhere in the middle, emphasizing a “both-and” approach to the ideas of rationality and belief. Doctor Strange embraces pluralism, perhaps without trying to, and feels far less preachy than even something like Superman, which champions ideas about patriotism and capitalism—not to mention the idea of the ubermensch—far more dogmatically.
Derrickson also has a feel for actors: Whenever possible, he lets them build the tension in a scene—not special effects, nor clunky expositional dialogue. Benedict Cumberbatch, who has such a commanding presence, has chemistry with Rachel McAdams, playing his colleague, Christine Palmer, who’s in love with him. But when she’s had enough of his self-centeredness, Christine threatens to end the relationship, and Strange retorts with something to the effect of, “you weren’t worth my time anyway.” It’s a jaw-dropping moment, one that elicited jeers from the audience, but McAdams gets a triumphant moment out of it: She walks away having rejected even his callousness, and isn’t about to be defined by what some arrogant jerk says about her. In later scenes, McAdams isn’t reduced to being the drag stock female character. (Although her role does diminish.) She’s forced at one point in the movie to save Strange from the brink of death, even while his soul—having temporarily left its body—battles with the soul of Kaecilius.
The fight scenes smack of familiarity, just like in every comic book movie, but Doctor Strange overcomes most of them too. (For one thing, they aren't as drawn out, and Doctor clocks in at under two hours because of it. Bless you, Scott Derrickson.) And the big showdown, which pits Strange against some super-evil-dark-force-spirit-thing, has a lovely, funny kick to it: Strange wins by using the concept of “looping,” repeating the same sequence indefinitely, until he irritates the thing into submission. (It's just like in Groundhog Day.) Perhaps this scene serves as a bigger comment on the mindless repetition that comic book movies foist on us, exhausting viewers into submission. It's amazing how grateful we can be when one of these movies actually surprises us.