“They say best men are moulded out of faults,
And, for the most, become much more the better
For being a little bad.”
Doctor Stephen Vincent Strange’s shelf is likely to feature more books on sorcery than Shakespeare but the bard’s words certainly ring true for the Marvel comic book character’s evolvement in Benedict Cumberbatch’s sophisticated, spellbinding delivery from medic to magician. Considering the latter almost didn’t play him, preoccupied as he was enacting, what do you know, Hamlet on stage, it’s rather elating to witness his clutter-breaking, super-heroic prowess at its consummate best.
Most of his ilk became costumed beacons of hope rescuing humanity from alien and home-grown threats, either prompted by an experience that left them scarred or bestowed them with abilities too significant to remain apathetic.
And, although, he excels at his job as a Manhattan neurosurgeon, the greater good of mankind isn’t an ideal the smug Doctor Strange has any time for. He’d rather spend it picking one out of the numerous luxury timepieces stored inside an exquisitely designed drawer of his swanky pad.
Consumed by the notion of infallibility, Strange holds excellence above healing and scoffs at the impact of his narcissism on personal relationships (Rachel McAdams). If the haughty manners and scathing tone of Cumberbatch’s snobbery is remindful of Hugh Laurie’s insolent humour as Dr Gregory House, his refinement and recklessness around affluence reveals a delicious potential for 007.
Except it’s not what he is but about to become that fuels the spirit of director Scott Derrickson’s origins story. Following a horrifying car accident that robs Strange of his talents, he travels to Kathmandu seeking cure from The Ancient One aka Sorcerer Supreme (Tilda Swinton) at Kamar-Taj, a secret society committed to the art of mysticism, somewhat like a Shaolin monastery but blending metaphysics with martial arts.
Like Nolan’s Bruce Wayne and Wachowskis’ Neo, Strange’s admission into the world of occult is characterised by getting a grip of his surreal surroundings and gaining mastery in an exclusive, dangerous branch of knowledge. And the immersive 3D and psychedelic imagery released through these events is gorgeous, giddy and extraordinarily mind-bending. It catapults Doctor Strange to another league of visual magnificence.
Meanwhile, Cumberbatch holds fort in his glamorously new majestic avatar, boosted by a sling ring that can create portals, an ectoplasmic form where he can slip in and out of his physical incarnation as per convenience, an incredibly animated cloak of levitation, an amulet carrying the potent eye of Agamotto and weapons –beaming orbs or blades of pure energy– conjured at will. One that he uses liberally to ward off Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his band of zealots hell bent on destroying parallel dimensions and, consequently, planet Earth.
According to the prelude issues Marvel came out in a run-up to Doctor Strange’s cinematic release, Kaecilius is a fairly decent bloke until he loses his wife and kid and joins the Kamar-Taj as a means to recuperate. Eventually he succumbs to the dark side and turns against The Ancient One compelling Strange and Mordo to assist her in the battle.
Absence of this back-story might make his aggression seem empty but Mikkelsen’s freakish eye make-up and jaw-dropping action of folding, crumbling architecture, that goes a step beyond Inception and reverses it too, don’t let that become a problem.
Plot wise, Derrickson adheres to the fundamentals of good versus evil. What clearly attracts him more is the conundrum engulfing his protagonists, the demons they carry. “We never lose our demons, we only learn to live above them,” explains Chiwetel Ejiofor. Surprisingly it comes from a character who has done nothing except abuse this belief. Unlike the comic books, wherein a persistent, power-hungry sorcerer Mordo constantly devises perilous tricks to defeat his adversary Doctor Strange, Ejiofor’s Mordo is sane and friendly.
Derrickson’s farsighted desire to gradually build on ideological differences and portray plausible metamorphosis while weighing in a philosophy that values mind over body, morality over mortality and the immeasurable possibilities a human soul is capable of on realisation is what gives Strange’s adventure its peculiarity, wit and dazzle.
Having some the niftiest actors in the business on board helps too. Cumberbatch was born to play Strange or any role marked by motion-capture technology (Strange is full of surprises too). Swinton’s incandescent, ethereal aura radiates through her bald skull, profound words and graceful moves. Ejiofor shrewdly keeps things cryptic alternating between aloof and affable whereas Mikkelsen uses his deadpan intensity to generate hilarity and hostility.
Between out of body experiences and frantic action, Derrickson finds enough room for laugh out moments that are delightful even in their embarrassment if not precisely for it.
Ultimately, in a genre exhausted by noisy vigour, spurious brooding and overwrought CGI, Doctor Strange finds a rare balance between blockbuster de rigueur and playful ingenuity.
Just when it looked as though CGI overkill has ruined the fun of spectacle, here comes a film that charms with its kaleidoscopic vision and meticulous combats. It’s unlike any other comic book adaptation I’ve watched in a while and, in the name of the Dread Dormammu, cannot wait to see more.