Illustrating that the word “problem” is a relative one, while one major movie studio continues to search for the voice of its shared superhero universe and deliver its first unqualified critical and commercial hit, another’s biggest hurdle is continually living to an insane level of expectations its unprecedented string of hits has built up.
Impressively, Marvel Studios has once again solved its 'problem’ with Doctor Strange, the latest in its unbroken string of eminently competent critic-and-crowd-pleasing blockbusters, introducing a character clearly being positioned as another Marvel Cinematic Universe anchor à la Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man.
Doctor Strange doesn’t quite rise to the top of Marvel’s hit list (that space is still occupied by Iron Man, The Avengers, The Winter Solider, and Guardians of the Galaxy), but debuts a highly respectable notch below, thanks mostly to the bottomless well of charisma of its lead Benedict Cumberbatch.
Hardcore Marvel Comics fans know in Doctor Strange’s brief origin story by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Strange was a straight-up a-hole before life as the Sorcerer Supreme and even after he remains a mostly aloof, unrelatable character. Cumberbatch’s Strange, however, is an arrogant but loveable a-hole - very Stark-esque in his hyper-witted, self-celebratory embrace of his own impressive genius. In other hands (let’s take a moment to note Joaquin Phoenix is hard to imagine in the role as written) the character might have been difficult to pull off, but like RDJ-Stark, Cumberbatch is so charming you cheer along with his snarky demonstrations of skills and as he playfully alpha dogs his colleagues.
Like in Iron Man, you only get to spend a few moments with the lead character until a terrible accident sends him on his superhero career path, but Strange wins you over immediately. Fans of filmmaking will also admire how effortless the performance seems for Cumberbatch. The role, indeed, seems written for him.
Because of those strengths and because some visual inventiveness (compromised but not totally spoiled by the trailers), you can forgive the somewhat perfunctory origin-story screenplay, credited to director Scott Derrickson and. C. Robert Cargill (with a story assist by Jon Spaihts).
It’s pretty much your standard ironic-life-turn-leads-to-fish-out-of-water-leads-to-confrontation-he’s-not-ready-for superhero formula. But as always it’s in the execution and Doctor Strange’s is executed well.
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo lends his considerable gravitas to the action; Benedict Wong gets to be noble and a comedic foil for Cumberbatch; and Mads Mikkelsen makes his serviceable if predictably non-descript villain work as well as needed.
As for Tilda Swinton’s controversial the Ancient One, her performance is both expected and surprising at the same time. 2016 sensibilities required Derrickson to jettison the culturally-insensitive, stereotypic western interpretation Eastern mysticism, but the enigmatic Swinton goes even farther against her own type playing a more folksy, plain-spoken Ancient One than you might expect.
If Doctor Strange has a real hidden trick up its sleeve, however, it’s the clever, meta-twist of its climatic scene. Without spoiling it, it plays like the literal reverse of the “destruction porn” final battle sequences movies like Man of Steel, The Avengers and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice have been criticized for. Whether it was an organic function of the story or a purposeful wink in that direction, Derrickson deserves credit for its refreshing wittiness either way.
As to its impact on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the good news at this stage it has little. Aside from the immediate addition of Cumberbatch to the top third of the Marvel line-up, Doctor Strange has little more than a cursory connection to MCU (but stay as you always should until the theater lights come back up).
At this stage of the MCU’s evolution, a short respite from the main Avengers-verse is a welcome one. Again, while one studio is still in search of a winning formula, Marvel’s task is how to expand and explore hidden corners of its winning formula to help keep it fresh.
Like Guardians and Ant-Man before it, Doctor Strange tastes enough like a Marvel movie to make it satisfying but its flavors are different enough to cleanse the palate …at least until May 2019’s inevitable seven-course Marvel meal, of which Cumberbatch may very well sit at the head of the table.