MOVIE BUFF-ET: Doctor Strange casts enchanting spell as Marvel’s latest big-screen hero

Photo: Jay Maidment

You’ve got to take your hat off to Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige. He and his team know how to create entertaining movies, even with what might be considered the company’s second-string characters.

Like Iron Man before his 2008 big-screen debut, Doctor Strange isn’t exactly household name, but that’s all about to change thanks to the visually stunning new film featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Master of Mystical Arts.

With the perfectly cast Cumberbatch as the arrogant and egotistical but yet phenomenally gifted neurosurgeon Stephen Strange, director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Substitute, and Sinister) crafts a mind-bending action film that’s also witty and thought provoking.

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As created by Marvel plotter/artist Steve Ditko and editor/scripter Stan Lee in 1963, Strange must deal with a crippling injury that denies him use of his primary surgical tool, his hands. Robbed of his ability to conduct surgery, Strange goes on a quest to regain the use of his hands that opens the door to a metaphysical universe that he never once believed to be true and his own growth as a human being.

Using every penny left in his fortune, Strange travels to Kathmandu, Nepal, in search of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who reportedly has the secrets and power to restore the use of Strange’s hands. What he finds blows both his and the viewer’s mind. Swinton is excellent in the role, lifting all her scenes, particularly a touching moment near the film’s climax.

Swinton’s casting as the Ancient One was somewhat controversial. The character in the comics is an Asian male. Some were concerned when a European female received the role, but Swinton excels as the character and erases the cliché of the ancient Asian mentor from the movie.

While never as popular and Lee and Ditko’s Spider-Man, Doctor Strange developed an ardent counter-culture sub-following in the 1960s as Ditko’s fantastical renderings of Marvel’s spiritual realm reminded followers of LSD proponent Timothy Leary of what they experienced when they turned one, tuned in, and dropped out.

There is no evidence that Ditko, who turned 89 Nov. 2, ever used mind-altering drugs. It would run contrary to his ardent Objectivist beliefs; however, little is known about Ditko’s private life because of his reclusive nature, which is in stark contrast to his fellow collaborator Lee, who not only adores the spotlight, but also appears in a cameo like he has in most movies featuring Marvel characters.

With that noted, the film’s special effects are fantastic as the Ancient One introduces Strange to the multidimensional realities that exist just beyond the surface of our own physical realm. The visuals are appropriately trippy as the scenery bends on top of itself with visuals that outstrip Christopher Nolan’s Inception or Interstellar and goes well beyond any other magical realm I’ve experienced on film. The filmmakers did a fantastic job of replicating the imaginative drawings of Ditko and other artists who worked on the comic series. The movie’s imagery is a game-lifter for future sci-fi and fantasy films. It’s the most inventive I’ve seen since The Matrix.

As the Ancient One trains Strange, we learn that he is a particularly intuitive and gifted student, who with diligent study begins to master arcane abilities at an astounding rate. He quickly becomes an equal to more experienced practitioners, studying under the Ancient One.

While training, Strange encounters two key allies in Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong). Ardent fans of the comics will find both characters changed significantly from the comics.

For instance, Wong is not a sorcerer in the comics but rather a trusted and beloved warrior protector and servant of Strange. Mordo’s motivation in the film veers significantly from the comics. Some might find this an improvement; others will not.

That aside, Ejiofor and Wong add fine support to Cumberbatch. Wong is particularly funny on several occasions in the film that boasts the trademark humor Marvel has used to lighten most of its films.

Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer is a grounding force in the film as Strange’s ex-lover, linking him back to his past as a surgeon. She, too, is very good in the role that strays from the comic-book canon, but her part works well within the confines of the movie.

Despite some differences in the characterizations, the film features plenty of fan service including mystical objects such as the Eye of Agamotto and the Cloak of Levitation just to name two. Thee are also verbal and visual references to other Marvel movies, setting the stage for Strange to interact with other heroes and villains of the connected Marvel film universe.

Mads Mikkelsen is the film’s inciting antagonist Kaecilius, who is a former pupil of the Ancient One. Now an ardent enemy of the Ancient One, whom he deems a hypocrite, Kaecilius serves an enigmatic entity from the Dark Dimension, who is sure to please most Marvel fans.

The showdown between Strange and this entity is clever and quite funny. It’s obviously a precursor of bigger mystical battles in the future.

As with other Marvel movies, Doctor Strange does include two additional scenes after the credits roll. The first comes midway through the credits and gives a hint to the storyline for next year’s Thor Ragnarok. The second comes after the credits and gives an indication of where a Doctor Strange sequel is headed.

The PG-13-rated movie features comic-book violence and has some intense moments, but no more so than any of the other Marvel films. Though the movie does depict sorcery, it’s not scary or creepy.

Grade: B+

Classic Corner

A Face In the Crowd

If you only know Andy Griffith from his eponymous TV show or from Matlock, his manic performance in Elia Kazan’s 1957 film A Face in the Crowd might not only surprise but also shock you.

I’ve never seen a performance quite like it on film. It’s charismatically alarming, particularly considering the roles that would later make Griffith a beloved star on the small screen. It’s what you might imagine the devil would be like if he wore overalls and a toothy grin.

The film tells the story of how a shiftless drifter Larry “Lonesome Rhodes” can rise from a stay in a Podunk drunk tank in Arkansas to national popularity and influence based on his charisma, wiles and the gullibility of his adoring public.

Radio produce Marcia Jeffries, Academy Award winner Patricia Neal, is charmed by Rhodes’ homespun humor on a visit to the jail. She bails him out and puts him on the air to immediate success. Jeffries lines up an appearance for Rhodes on television in Memphis, Tenn., and he wins over the audience with his downhome humor and charm.

However, behind the scenes Rhodes is a mad manipulator of people, using them up and spitting them out. As Rhodes skyrockets to national fame and influence, his massive ego and arrogance swells to gargantuan proportions.

Griffith’s Rhodes is quite psychotic. It’s a performance that becomes sickening to watch, but still oddly compelling. Neal gives a fine performance, too. At first, she seems to be the one pulling the strings on Rhodes, but by the middle of the film, she is dancing to his tune, giving in to his verbal and hinted at physical abuse. Walter Matthau plays a supporting role as a writer, whose working on a book about Rhodes, and Lee Remick plays an alluring young woman who also falls under Rhodes’ charismatic sway.

The film might remind the viewer of a hayseed version of Citizen Kane in some aspects. The plots aren’t dissimilar, but Rhodes’ fall come as quickly as his rise as his arrogance and carelessness sends him on a meteoric tumble.

Of late, more than a few pundits have likened Donald Trump and his roller coaster run for the presidency to Griffith’s character arc as Rhodes. I’ll let you be the judge on the validity of that comparison, but either way, Kazan, Griffith, and screenwriter Bud Schulberg crafted a fine, entertaining film about the gullibility of the public and the hubris of some public figures.