Studio interference is generally seen as a corrosive force in the making of a film—the moment when the creatives and the suits collide in a superhero showdown of their own. At Marvel Studios, spearheaded by Kevin Feige, it seems like the studio is both the creative and the suit. Their films, since the release of “Iron Man,” are so consistently enjoyable, I wouldn’t be shocked if Feige has a safe in his office, in which lies a golden scroll with a secret formula written upon it in loud cursive.
Stephen Strange’s hands are his prized possessions; if they could be removed, he would keep them in the same safe where Kevin Feige keeps the Marvel formula. With those hands, Strange performs masterful operations as a neurosurgeon, saving lives that, in lesser hands, would surely be lost. But Strange isn’t in it for the warm, fuzzy feeling that accompanies a good deed. Strange is in the doctor game for the money, the women, the fast cars and, above all else, the legacy—all of which are swept away in a single moment.
After spending his entire fortune to no avail, Strange takes to Nepal in search of an answer. It is there he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), whose healing abilities are of the “you ain’t seen nothin’, yet” variety. She takes Strange under her wing, and just as he excelled as a surgeon—years of dedication and practice—so he does as a sorcerer.
This isn’t the whimsical magic of Harry Potter; this is the “turn off your mind, relax and float downstream” brand of magic. There’s alternate dimensions that look like the cover of “Disraeli Gears,” time-loops that’ll make you say “whoa” and long, strange trips where fingers have hands with fingers that have hands.
In turns out psychedelia does a movie good, as common hand-to-hand combat is heightened by setting it against a malleable reality, where matter can reshape on command—think “Inception,” but with ninjas. One moment stands out from the rest, in which time is going backward but the fighters are going forward, resulting in groovy madness. Just as in the miniature fights of “Ant-Man,” Marvel Studios has found yet another way to make punching and kicking feel like something more.
There is a romance, but it comes pre-made, meaning we aren’t burdened by shoehorned displays of heroism, after which the damsel is legally obligated to profess her forever, undying love. By the time we see Strange and Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) together, their repartee suggests a lengthy emotional history and a dormant affection. While Palmer populates a relatively small part of the film, Strange wears a watch she gave to him on the same arm from which he casts a time spell, which speaks volumes as to the importance of the relationship.
I’ve heard some criticism in regards to the character of Strange, specifically regarding his arrogance in the beginning of the film. You don’t have to like a character, you just have to believe the character, and if Strange was so egotistical that you found him unsavory, then Cumberbatch has done his job well. As the Ancient One, Swinton exudes all the vigorous wisdom and gentle strength you’d expect. Marvel Studios continues to have strong casting.
As the final battle nears, “Doctor Strange” could have gone the way of many blockbuster films—the way of CGI scrawl, where one shiny thing is bumping up against another. But the film takes the inter-dimensional portal less traveled and gives us a final battle of wits, worthy of its educated hero, and its educated audience.
3.5 out of 5 stars