By: Daniel Reynolds
A person can go crazy trying to figure out which accent Benedict Cumberbatch puts on in Doctor Strange. He plays world-renowned surgeon Dr. Stephen Strange, based in Manhattan, but he definitely doesn’t sound like a New Yorker. No discussion is made of the man’s heritage, but it’s doubtful the accent’s background would be British — Cumberbatch’s natural voice. No, like much of Marvel’s latest movie, Dr. Strange’s accent is a vaguely funny, weird thing to be tried on and tossed off. The accent — which mostly just screams “pretentious asshole” — is part of the light fun of the film. It’s perhaps best not to go too crazy about it.
Despite his disconcerting name, Dr. Strange is trusted to take on only the most severe of medical cases, the ones that also happen to have the highest reward and most personal glory attached. As established by director Scott Derrickson (working from a script he co-wrote with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill), Strange has an impossibly luxurious apartment, a gorgeous watch collection, and drives around in a fancy automobile. He is also filled mostly with boredom (or contempt) for anyone else, including his former lover Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams, miscast — again?). In short, Dr. Strange is Batman with parents who died of old age. We cheer modestly when, after a reckless car accident, Strange is left a broken man with extreme nerve damage in his hands. His medical career in shambles, Strange tries everything scientific to regain control of his body until some advice sends him east to Nepal and a chance encounter with the fantastical. Before we can even say “white privilege wins again,” Strange begins to learn the mystical arts from a secret order of sorcerers led by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, adding one more role to her fantastic resume), as trouble brews on the multiverse horizon.
The trouble here begins with Kaecilius (played blankly by Mads Mikkelsen), a rogue wizard who steals some pages out of a book with evil intent. The Ancient One, along with her cohorts Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong), aim to stop him, while Strange, half-heartedly at first, joins in on the plan. The initial villain here is but a mouthpiece however for some other unspeakable ancient evil. This time it’s called Dormammu, but you’ve heard this all before — it’s an expanding and growing force somewhere out beyond the edges of the known universe, it has an endless hunger, it wants to destroy everything just because. (I submit ancient evil could use a hobby or two.) We know this form of mystic evil as sure as we know Strange’s eventual response to it — a response that will involve at least one dude getting punched in the face.
For a movie about magic, there’s a good amount of punching and kicking in Doctor Strange. This would easily be the least memorable part of the film — Derrickson’s grip on fight choreography and action-filmmaking leave something to be desired — if not for the film’s use of setting. To Doctor Strange‘s credit, fight scenes here go into all sorts of swirling Inception-style flights of fancy, with twisted Labyrinth-like touches, and a visual flair to make M.C. Escher blush. Just enough is done — tricks of architecture, folding cities, and some true stabs into trippy and horrific psychedelia — to make a viewer forget we’ve seen exactly all of this before. The familiarity of a climactic confrontation set in a major metropolis, for example, is no match for the light awe inspired by magically running chunks of the action in reverse. What a novel idea. (There’s also another really clever play with time loops, but I won’t spoil it here.)
If the word “familiar” is coming up a lot, and it does seem like I’ve been relying on it quite a bit as of late, there is also another f-word in play here, as with most Marvel movies: fun. Yes, Doctor Strange, with its obvious exposition points, and well-known motivations, is fun. Cumberbatch and his goofy unplaceable accent are delightful. The machinations of the plot — pivoting around themes of self-sacrifice, the nature of power, and the passage of time — come together in satisfying (albeit obvious) ways. There are running gags here, and some laughs rung from the role of Strange’s iconic cape. The film is just five minutes shy of two hours long, but it feels shorter, which is actually a good thing. It moves, gets you from point A to point B (through an inter-dimensional portal, mind you) and deposits you outside of the theatre with a smile on your face. At this point I would expect nothing less from Marvel Studios and its choice characters.
In that sense, Doctor Strange is vaguely critic-proof. I don’t mean it can’t be disliked, or hated on, or even critically assessed to one degree or another. The reaction to it — both both critics and audiences — has been largely positive. I mean more simply: Doctor Strange, like the latest batch of Marvel films, just works. The film structurally holds together well, it is stocked with good actors (even if it doesn’t quite know what to do with all of them), and the narrative lines that tie it together are paid off in big and small ways — no small feat given Doctor Strange‘s obligation to a larger meta-narrative that is, of course, hinted at in two post-credits stingers. As Marvel gets more ambitious with elevating its more “secondary” characters into movie stardom, the slick quality of these films is at the very least laudable. If there’s a downside, it comes afterwards upon leaving the theatre, after the smile dissipates from one’s face, and — poof! — you never think of this movie again.