By Lilly Ball
The silver screen debut of Marvel’s neurosurgeon-turned-superhero Dr. Stephen Strange feels like an acid trip through time and alternate universes, further emphasized by near-magic displays of CGI artistry and visuals. Director Scott Derrickson’s “Dr. Strange” is the latest Marvel flick to transcend the limitations of superhero films by combining an other-worldly aesthetic with a thrilling soundtrack to create an experience that can only be described as strange, wonderfully strange.
The film introduces a much less mainstream character than The Avengers: Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), an egotistical yet incredibly successful neurosurgeon. Strange spends his days brooding in his lavish New York apartment, saving lives in surgery when he feels like it, until a car accident severely injures his hands, wasting years of medical school and training in a matter of seconds. Rather than accepting his fate, Strange begins a crazed quest to find any medical practice that could help him return to his previous life of achievement, leading him to the fictional Kamar-taj (supposedly located in South Asia) where he meets Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his mentor, The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Under the leadership of The Ancient One, Strange learns of unseen universes and of the powers that Mordo and his peers hold. Strange proves to be a fast learner, but his training is cut short when a former student of The Ancient One starts trouble.
A story as fantastical as “Dr. Strange” could only be supported by visuals so astonishing that viewing the film in 3D has a dizzying effect. Cinematographer Ben Davis, known for his work on previous Marvel films such as “Guardians of the Galaxy,” presents a view of the Marvel universe unlike any other, as if the movie itself was filmed through a kaleidoscope. Marvel films rarely create action scenes with an aesthetic goal in mind, but in “Dr. Strange,” each battle is spellbinding. Through each fight, chaos is created, as the characters have the ability to manipulate the very ground beneath their feet. The world folds in on itself, while Strange and his associates conjure light with their bare hands, making the film a mind-bending illusion.
Soundtracks often only serve to emphasize dramatic action scenes, but in “Dr. Strange,” each scene is strengthened by it, adding a separate, musical aspect to the film. Though much different from his previous work on Disney animated films such as “Up,” composer Michael Giacchino gives the film a magic that only superb music can provide. Viewers may not remember a single track from previous Marvel productions, but the score of “Dr. Strange” is entertaining enough to stand on its own, particularly the main theme, “One of Many.” Giacchino combined sounds from the cultural music of Nepal, where the movie was filmed, with empowering orchestral melodies, making the soundtrack both exciting, beautifully unique and entirely iconic.
In addition to the innovative filmmaking that makes “Dr. Strange” such an achievement for action films, Benedict Cumberbatch’s onscreen presence is completely consuming. Strange is persuasive and cocky, but irresistibly likeable, very similar to Cumberbatch’s depiction of Sherlock Holmes; it appears “lovable sociopath” is his specialty. Even during his scenes with Tilda Swinton, who is distractingly bald and in brightly colored robes, Cumberbatch steals the spotlight. There had been controversy about casting Swinton in a role originally written for an Asian male. But in his attempt to avoid stereotyping Asian culture, Derrickson recreated The Ancient One specifically for Swinton, who decided to portray The Ancient One androgynously. Despite her shocking presence, Swinton brought a warmth to the role, allowing a character with terrifying powers to appear kind and almost loving.
While Marvel continues to add characters to its quickly expanding cinematic universe, the films could easily become messy and overwrought with references and expensive battle scenes. After viewing “Dr. Strange,” it is clear that the studio has a higher goal in mind, possibly one involving the Academy Awards, as superhero films become a box office norm, and overall, an improved genre.