The makers of the latest comic book-inspired feature film “Doctor Strange” faced the same hurdle as those who put together “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Both come from the lesser-known quadrant of the Marvel Comics galaxy.
“Guardians” became a massive box-office hit with brilliant casting, a smart script and stunning visual effects. “Doctor Strange” uses the same formula – but kicks it up 100 degrees – to make “Doctor Strange” one of the best films in the Marvel Comics film library.
For those of you not that familiar with the character, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the most accomplished and egotistical surgeon on the planet. That changes when a car accident leaves him with mangled hands, ending his brilliant surgical career. Attempts to use traditional medicine to fix the problem fall short, leaving Strange searching for more unorthodox ways of healing. Those efforts unlock mystical powers that turn the man of medicine into a force to protect Earth from supernatural assaults.
Bringing this story so beautifully to life starts with the casting of Cumberbatch as Strange. As good as Cumberbatch has been playing Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series about the masterful detective, he’s even better as the man of magic.
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Cumberbatch brings a seriousness to the role that helps bridge the skepticism gap created with any feature film based on a comic book. His reverent approach to playing the role makes it easy to accept the character, both as a self-centered man of medicine and as a manipulator of magic. It takes a confident actor to be able to slip into a superhero costume and make it look serious. Cumberbatch embraces the look as if he were starring in “Hamlet.”
Couple that with being able to deliver the touches of humor sprinkled through the film and Cumberbatch delivers a well-rounded performance. Those behind the films based on DC Comics have had trouble finding a way of adding touches of humor without disrupting the flow of the narrative. They should look at “Doctor Strange” for inspiration.
While Cumberbatch is confident and cool delivering both the serious and the silly, it starts with a perfectly balanced script by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill. They capture the essence of the writing Steve Ditko brought to the character when he was created in 1963 for Marvel Comics.
The bigger challenge created by “Doctor Strange” is the need to have so much original material since the character has such a low profile in the comics. Despite being faced with so much explanatory material, the writers find a skillful blend of setting up the character, taking him through his transformation and establishing Doctor Strange as being as powerful in the Marvel Universe as Thor, Iron Man or any other costumed hero.
As if that weren’t enough, director Scott Derrickson has crafted a film that moves from the intimate to the fantastical without pause. He knows when to allow the cameras to embrace the human moments, but when the scenes need to explode with the mind-blowing images reminiscent of the original comic book he doesn’t hold back. It’s as if he took the movie “Inception,” pumped it full of steroids, hit it with gamma rays and let it loose.
Even when the movie gets massively visual, it never gets away from the central strength of Cumberbatch’s performance. That’s not easy to do, but accomplishing the task is why “Doctor Strange” is pure Marvel magic.