Need an actor to play an intellectually brilliant, emotionally cold, slightly sociopathic character? Benedict Cumberbatch is your go-to guy. He’s made these types his forte, so his casting as Marvel Comics superhero Doctor Strange isn’t strange at all.
An aloof, arrogant neurosurgeon who becomes a powerful sorcerer, Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange is another of his cold-fish geniuses, a brainy brother under the skin to Sherlock Holmes and Alan Turing. Those two were hardly people pleasers, but Doctor Strange is even more overbearing. He’s haughty towards his colleagues and disagreeably chilly towards his ex-lover, Rachel McAdams’s medic Christine Palmer.
“An explosively psychedelic head-trip”
To say he’s hard to like would be an understatement. Fortunately, it isn’t too long before he is on the road to reformation after a gruesome car crash damages the nerves in his hands and wrecks his career. His quest for a cure takes him to Kathmandu, where an enigmatic mystic known as the Ancient One (beguilingly played by a bald, androgynous, teasingly oracular Tilda Swinton) opens his mind to the universe’s different dimensions and sends him on an explosively psychedelic head-trip – a reminder that the original comic-book character really did hit it off with the 1960s counter-culture.
Duly enlightened, Strange sets about honing his sorcery skills, overseen by the Ancient One’s chief lieutenants, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong. At first, he’s comically ropey. Indeed, his ineffectual early efforts at casting spells make him look like a man wafting a sputtering orange sparkler. Yet he eventually gets the hang of things. And his skills become crucial when nihilistic baddie Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), an errant former disciple of the Ancient One, appears on the scene, threatening world-ending destruction.
“If you’re going to steal, steal from the best”
The Marvel Comic Universe has been expanding so rapidly that it’s getting harder to summon up excitement at the prospect of yet another fantasy figure’s origin story. But Doctor Strange has more than enough pep to prevent superhero fatigue setting in just yet.
In places, director Scott Derrickson’s visuals truly dazzle. Cityscapes bend and fold as rival sorcerers reshape reality, conjuring up the origami dreamscapes of Christopher Nolan’s Inception and the mind-bending illusions of artist MC Escher; when Strange ventures into different astral realms, his acid trip freak out recalls the Star Gate sequence from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The borrowings make sense: if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.
But it’s Cumberbatch who makes the movie zing. He’s sardonic. He’s funny. He’s buff enough for all the martial arts. And he fits into the movie’s comic-book world surprisingly well. When Strange dons his trademark Cloak of Levitation, Cumberbatch pulls off the cape without looking camp. Even more impressively, when it comes to casting spells, he pulls off the occult mumbo-jumbo with panache. We should have known. When it comes to acting magic, Cumberbatch really is a sorcerer.
Certificate 12A. Runtime 115 mins. Director Scott Derrickson