Directed by Scott Derrickson; screenplay by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill (from the comic book character created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko)
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong
115’; USA 2016.
Stephen Strange is a world famed, egotistical and brilliant neurosurgeon. One day, however, his career is destroyed by a car accident that affects the use of his hands. After trying every possible cure the western medicine has to offer, he leaves for Tibet searching for a mysterious place called Kamar-Taj, which promises incredible healing possibilities. There he meets The Ancient One, a character endowed with exceptional powers, who opens his mind to a new vision of the world and introduces him to magic…
Doctor Strange, former world famed neurosurgeon turned Supreme Sorcerer, who fights “mystical” enemies and travels through dimensions using magic, is a singular character even in the colourful Marvel universe, and a good deal of this new movie’s success from the House of Ideas is largely due to Benedict Cumberbatch spot-on casting in the titular role.
In Cumberbatch’s interpretation, Stephen Strange is a mixture of arrogance and fragility, who has made professional excellence and continuous triumphs the measure of his own consistency, an attitude destined to crumble against the accident that crushes his career.
Materialistic to the bone, Strange is forced to beg for help at the door of the mysterious Ancient One (brought onscreen by British actress Tilda Swinton, a casting that had many screaming “racism”, since the original character is an elderly asian man), who, instead of healing, offers him a portal to unknown worlds where the soul can exist apart from the body, and where the strength of the spirit can bend matter.
The risk of “New Ageism” is present, (the comic book dates back to 1963, and its psychedelic drifts largely predate many American counter-culture movements), but Derrickson’s movie deftly dodges it by treating it with irony and even confidently playing with the genre’s motifs. We see this in trainings that defy Strange’s prejudices, time paradoxes and spectacular journeys through the multiverse; in fights where, for once, physical supremacy is not as important as intellectual supremacy, and in challenges where a stubborn acceptance of defeat can be more important than the will to win. Besides Swinton’s Ancient One, the other notable female character is Christine Palmer, Strange’s former lover who, while remaining outside the heart of the action, still acts as his true moral compass.
Strange’s antagonists aren’t that memorable. Extra-dimensional entity Dormammu is an “absolute” but uninteresting villain, while Mads Mikkelsen Kaecilius, if properly developed, could have delivered a little more thrills. Yet there is matter for pondering, even within the limits of a clearly mainstream cinema.
As with other villains, the fight here is against materialistic nihilism more than the fascination with power. It is a nihilism that reduces every human life to a speck of dust inside a universe devoid of any meaning, and in facing the scandal of life’s inevitable end, it mistakes the yearning for immortality with the false promise of an eternal and unmoving death.
Between not so hidden analogies with Christopher Nolan (Inception for the reality bent and deformed by the sorcerers, but even Batman Begins with the journey to Tibet, and Interstellar too), links to the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and the seeds for future adventures, the movie manages nonetheless to find its own identity. It offers the audience a mixture of action, comedy and philosophical gravitas, along with a visually spectacular journey in which 3D provides a further and useful “additive”.
Problematic elements: some violent and tense scenes, within the limits of the genre.