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Arts & Culture

Benedict Cumberbatch Impressively Dons The Cape Of 'Doctor Strange'

The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) tries to teach Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) a little something about sorcery and mysticism in "Doctor Strange."
Marvel
The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) tries to teach Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) a little something about sorcery and mysticism in "Doctor Strange."

Trippy new entry in the Marvel Universe is fun and even thoughtful

Benedict Cumberbatch Impressively Dons The Cape Of 'Doctor Strange'
Marvel Studios expands its franchise this week with the debut of “Doctor Strange.”

Companion viewing

"Orlando" (1992)

"Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

"BBC Sherlock" (2010-2016)

Marvel Studios expands its franchise this week with the debut of “Doctor Strange.”

“Doctor Strange” is one of Marvel’s lesser-known superheroes. When we meet Stephen Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, he’s a brilliant, arrogant surgeon who prefers doing the kind of work that will get him recognition rather than wasting his talents in ER, where he would just be saving one life at a time.

But a careless moment on the road (the film even ends with a warning to everyone to not be distracted while driving) leads to a terrible car accident.

Strange wakes up to find that his precious surgeon’s hands have been shattered and rebuilt and the chances of him ever performing surgery again look slim to none. After spending all his money and exhausting every possible treatment he decides to turn to mysticism and sorcery to try and regain his former skills.

A long journey leads him to The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who opens his eyes to new possibilities far beyond the science he knows. He resists her teaching at first but eventually embraces it and just in time. One of The Ancient One’s old students (played by “Hannibal’s” Mads Mikkelesen) has turned to the dark side and poses a threat to the entire planet. Well, we wouldn’t expect anything less in a comic book movie.

The character of Doctor Strange debuted in the psychedelic, mind-altering 1960s when embracing mysticism was all the rage. If you look at some of the panels in the early comics they had a sort of LSD trip look to them as it took Strange and the reader to other dimensions. The title “Doctor Strange” aptly described the worlds it would take you into.

To helm this trippy comic, Marvel turned to Scott Derrickson, a director who started his career in horror with a “Hellraiser” sequel followed by “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “Sinister.” He brings a slightly darker edge to the Marvel film universe with this origin tale, emphasizing the body horror of someone whose hands — the tools of his trade — are destroyed and rebuilt.

Because the film does tap into a tradition of mind-bending tales from the comics, the need and potential for CGI is great. But in creating the multiple worlds of “Doctor Strange” the film runs the risk of turning into CGI porn as it indulges in a constant onslaught of massive effects that fill the entire frame and turn the characters into the meaningless "specks" in the universe that Strange had reduced human existence to in a comment.

The effects have occasional flair (especially when depicting a world off planet earth) but they are put in the foreground of the film where the human characters get lost or become animated specks. With building folding up and the world turning upside down, it also looks a lot like the world created in “Inception.”

Fortunately, Derrickson is smart enough to enlist an ensemble of exceptional actors — as opposed to movie stars — that ground the film in emotional realities. Cumberbatch, Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, and Mikkelson ultimately prove more dazzling than the CGI because they give us something to care about or be engaged with.

There was some controversy about the casting of a non-Asian in the role of The Ancient One. I understand where the complaints come from (yes, Hollywood needs to be more diverse) but from an artistic and creative perspective I cannot understand how anyone can complain about casting the astonishing Swinton in anything.

If they had cast Anne Hathaway or Reese Witherspoon then yes, make an issue of it because they are simply wrong for the part regardless of their ethnicity. Just as the complaints about casting Scarlett Johansson in "Ghost in the Shell" are more valid because her casting reflects a complete lack of imagination on the part of studio executives. They have seen her in a skin-tight superhero costume similar to the one the character of The Major wears in the anime and she's been in comic book box office hits and so they go "There's our girl." That's lame. But Swinton casting seems prompted more by the fact that she actually is right for the role.

But Swinton is a performer who seems to transcend gender and ethnicity because she seems somehow otherworldly. (Just like David Bowie did and the two even swapped identities for a photo shoot.) She has excelled in films where her character swapped genders midway through, “Man to Man” and “Orlando;” and has played an angel (“Constantine”), a witch (“The Chronicles of Narnia”) and a vampire (“Only Lovers Left Alive”).

And while I want to see a Hollywood where there more parts for minorities I also see an actor’s job as being about the ability to transform into a role and Swinton transforms magnificently into the role of The Ancient One. Perhaps Marvel could have found an Asian performer who could have done the role well but Swinton is great and in many ways perfect for the part of a character that seems not entirely of this world.

But the film does boast a fairly diverse cast with a mix of countries and ethnicity to give us Ejiofor, Wong and Mikkelsen in key roles. Plus as I mentioned earlier, the casting went for people who are less celebrities and more actors and that helps immensely in a film where human qualities can get lost in all the effects and superhero scale of the story.

“Doctor Strange” (rated PG-13 for action violence and some frightening images) doesn’t do a lot to innovate on the Marvel origin story format but it delivers a fun and at times even thoughtful new entry in the Marvel cinematic universe. Plus it’s fun to see Cumberbatch don “Doctor Strange’s” cape.