Dr. Stephen Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) life changes after a car accident robs him of the use of his hands. When traditional medicine fails him, he looks for healing, and hope, in a mysterious enclave. He quickly learns that the enclave is at the front line of a battle against unseen dark forces bent on destroying reality. Before long, Strange is forced to choose between his life of fortune and status or leave it all behind to defend the world as the most powerful sorcerer in existence.
Other than a quick reference in The Winter Soldier, I have never heard of Doctor Strange/Stephen Strange. Even after hearing that Benedict Cumberbatch was going to play him, there was still doubt there as it was hard to ever see him in such a position. After a few trailers, that doubt started to fade. After watching the film, it is easy to forget that it was Cumberbatch all together. But the film is more than just Cumberbatch as it promises to be a visual experience like no other.
Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a brilliant, yet arrogant surgeon whose life changes in an instant once a tragic car accident that causes the use of his hands. Looking for another way, he turns to a mysterious compound of Kamar-Taj under the tutelage of its leader known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and one of her students named Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Strange thought that he would only be there for some spiritual healing, he learns about a war going on behind the scenes against dark forces, led by one of The Ancient One’s pupils named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).
The film follows the evolution of Strange from his more selfish, arrogant nature to that of the hero we see today. This trajectory was rather predictable, obviously, with Strange starting off as a selfish, arrogant surgeon. This arrogance led to a vicious car accident that led to him losing his livelihood and his identity. This desperation to retain his identity led him to the secret compound in the hopes of getting his hands back.
This quest became so much more once Strange learned the truth about Kamar-Taj and The Ancient One (as was shown in the trailers). He became immersed in the teachings, facing the typical hurdles along the way. Regardless of whatever progress he was making, The Ancient One still saw something in Strange that made her believe in him. Despite all this new knowledge, Strange was still expecting that it would lead to him getting his hands back. The first half of the film, from the beginning to when he develops his powers, is weird in that it feels both slow and rushed at the same time.
Strange’s selfishness begins to wear away once he learns about The Ancient One’s rogue pupil Kaecilius and the mysterious dark forces at play. He decides to go the compound library, run by Master Wang (Benedict Wong), and secretly read some of the books. This included one that Kaecilius stole while he killed Wang’s predecessor. He and his fellow zealots Kaecilius and his followers used the stolen pages from the book to begin summoning the powerful Dormammu of the Dark Dimension, where time does not exist and all can live forever.
To do this, they must destroy the three sanctums located all around the world that exist to protect the Earth from the other dimensions. The bulk of the action consisted of Strange and Mordo following around Kaecilius and his zealots from sanctum to sanctum until the inevitable confrontation with Dormammu. The problem with this was the film poorly established Kaecilius making him come off as very underwhelming and forgettable. There wasn’t much there with him. The lack of any development whatsoever with his character and his overly generic nature took away all the impact of his character’s motivations, making us not care. The buildup to Dormammu and his eventual reveal was underwhelming as well.
Out of the other supporting characters, the best has to be The Ancient One. Yes, Tilda Swinton is not Asian and that is noticeable at first but it is quickly forgotten. She is a wise, all-knowing, mysterious master. She was an interesting character who can definitely stand her own with all the other characters in some fun moments. Karl Mordo was a weird character. He was supposed to be a teacher and then became a friend of sorts to Strange but their relationship never really worked as they didn’t have much chemistry. Their relationship changes dramatically later on as a probable buildup for him in the future but it just didn’t work since it felt forced. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) was Strange’s sort of love interest who played a prominent role in the first section of the movie and pretty much disappeared afterwards, reappearing in a more comedic sequence later on involving astral projection.
The best part of the film has to be the visuals. The trailers provide a glimpse but the IMAX and the 3D (If you get the chance) bring them to life. The visual sequences are quite breathtaking and are unlike any other superhero film. Seeing the world change and shift around was very Inception-like. The other various magic-related effects were also well done but being this type of film, faces moments of obvious CGI. The film had okay action but there wasn’t nearly enough of it because characters were just running away or towards something most of the time. Being an MCU film, it features comedic moments to break up serious moments and to lighten the mood which worked most of the time.
The acting here was good all around with Cumberbatch being the standout. He held his own here with his charm, likability, and screen presence making him captivating to watch. He was great at portraying Strange’s journey from beginning to end. He simply loses himself in the role. Again, Ejiofor’s Mordo was a weird character but it wasn’t all his fault. He didn’t have any chemistry with Cumberbatch but his character was underwritten. Swinton was great here as The Ancient One, creating a cool, calming presence. She could have been used more. Wong was good as Wang with his fun exchanges with Cumberbatch. McAdams and Mikkelson were wasted here. McAdams was good in an unnecessary role and Mikkelson was okay and did his best with a severely underwritten role.
Of course there’s an after-credits scene, actually one in the middle and another at the end. No spoilers though.
Overall, this a visually stunning film which benefits from 3D and/or IMAX with good performances, especially by Cumberbatch and Swinton, but the story isn’t quite up to par.