Steve Ditko's avenging, psychedelic sorcerer, Dr. Stephen Strange has finally entered the big-budget Marvel universe. Directed by Scott Derrickson, who also co-penned the script with C. Robert Cargill, the film forms a mystical trip of mounting discovery, matched by intersecting deception.
In tune with the original source, the surgeon and sorcerer-to-be (Benedict Cumberbatch) damages his hands in an auto accident. In that his injuries are seemingly irreparable, he seeks to mend them through unorthodox means, traveling immense distances to locate a guru-supreme, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).
The starry-eyed mystic helps Strange transform in ways he could never have imagined, not so much to regain the use of his precious fingers, but to achieve full-scale, metaphysical elevation. He soon learns that he can levitate through dimensional portals via spellcasting techniques and with his sharpened senses, benefit humankind in ways that far exceed the virtues of even the most gifted surgeon.
His honorable intent meets indirect competition, however, through his teacher's former disciple, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who for all intents and purposes acts as the film's adversary, though he's really not evil in the classical sense. Instead, he holds an ambitious, differing opinion on how to make matters eternally better for humankind: his methods more extreme than what our hero would care to implement. This makes Kaecilius more in tune with DC's Bane and Ra's al Ghul than a standard Marvel opponent.
Naturally, we're granted the obligatory, final-reel clash of the titans, but there's a great deal of tense fun leading to that point. Just as Boris Karloff and Vincent Price battled it out (albeit comically) in "The Raven '63", so do Strange and Kaecilius. Their magical bouts crease the fabric of reality (and various time sectors linked to it), adding an unnerving splendor to the proceedings.
The film also offers a number of interesting, supporting characters, such as the mystical duo of Wong (Benedict Wong) and Karl Mordo (Chiewetel Ejiofor); Strange's medical rival, Dr. Nicodemus West (Michael Stuhlbarg); the self-healing and inspirational Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt); Kaecilius' faithful soldier, Lucian (Scott Adkins); and love interest, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams, who like Cumberbatch, has visited Conan Doyle cinematic territory). Each member does a fine job in broadening the doctor's personality and destiny, and thankfully when it comes to the relationship between our hero and Palmer, the romance remains underdeveloped.
This allows the duel between the two leads to define the film, but simultaneously makes its events different than what we typically find in a Marvel movie, where the division between (or among) battling gods is blunt and clear-cut. The ambiguity of good and bad in "Strange", therefore, may prove a plus or minus depending on one's vantage. It's certainly not Ditko, though the film's mind-bending ambiance holds (for the most part) true to the creator's vision.
With that said, as a basic, fantasy adventure, "Strange" succeeds, though more with a modern-day sensibility and structure (as opposed to a '60s, LSD-induced backdrop that old-timers might prefer). Additionally, it projects specks of the mythology's macabre atmosphere, but never dips deeply into the comic's Lovecraftian depths or the sophisticated menace of the ill-fated, CBS '78 pilot.
To the film's advantage, Cumberbatch is ideally cast as Strange, lending a faithful arrogance to the character, but in comparison to the 2007 animated feature, "Dr. Strange: the Sorcerer Supreme", his highbrow stance is quickly replaced by a stumbling through lessons, which minimizes his heroic loftiness. This deprives us from watching Strange swing realistically from emotional extremes: a missed opportunity, which would have enriched the film. (Strange's arduous training also smacks a little too much of Lamont Cranton's in Russell Mulcahy's '94 "The Shadow", which handled matters faster and with superior impact.)
As for Strange's opposition, Mikkelsen once more proves himself an actor of impeccable range. His characterization contains the best of both good and bad (as does Ejiofor's Mordo, if one pays attention to his backstory). However, on the debatable downside, Kaecilius never becomes a full-fledged adversary to root against, his suave, exotic presence remaining as headstrong and determined as the title character's: a plot device that might be too clever for its own good, particularly when the audience is meant to choose one mystic over the other. It's only Kaecilius' vicious displays that tip the scales...perhaps.
Unlike other Marvel/Avenger movies, "Strange" (if only due to its kaleidoscopic backdrops and interludes) acts primarily as a two-hour reverie. However, even though it skids from a linear track, its content surpasses its magical-based competition with little effort. It doesn't try to be sweet and whimsical, nor does it cater to those timid millennials who'll likely dash to the upcoming Potter prequel. It simply unfolds in the weirdest and most unapologetic of ways: the twisting and turning of images and passages mere icing on a large and tasty cake, which promises more mesmerizing adventures to come.