Tell me if this story rings a bell: We meet a self-involved, extremely wealthy, charming egomaniac whose bottom line is about making more money and acquiring more prestige. When he is struck with life-threatening injuries, he seeks out an advanced and radical treatment to cure himself. During the process, he learns to be a better human being, then learns to be a hero. By the end of the movie, after a lot of training montages, he’s a full-fledged superhero and he doesn’t care who knows it.
This, of course, is the plot of 2008’s Iron Man, an origin story movie that took a then fairly unknown to the masses superhero and transformed him (and its star, Robert Downey Jr.) into one of the most recognizable characters on the planet. And it launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it today.
That summary is also the plot of Doctor Strange, a character who, right now, is fairly unknown to mass audiences – but that’s all about to change. And after seeing Doctor Strange, it seems pretty obvious that Marvel is banking that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange will be their new go-to character as Downey (now 51) isn’t going to play Tony Stark forever. (Or, at the very least, isn’t going to be the central character who seems to bob and weave his way into other characters’ movies. Of the now 14 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, Stark has appeared in 7 of those. He will next appear in next year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.)
Like Iron Man, Doctor Strange is such a self-contained origin story, it kind of seems refreshing. At no point do characters decide, “Hey, let’s go see what Hawkeye is up to!” A disclaimer: Yes, origin stories are overdone, but Marvel hasn’t done one without someone else from the MCU showing up in a long time. It’s been awhile; even Guardians of the Galaxy incorporated MCU Big Bad Thanos. Here, we go all in into the world of Doctor Strange. And it’s a weird world.
Yes, we can talk about the visuals, which are dazzling. (I will rarely say this: but the 3D is worth it this time.) They’re so dazzling that it’s easy to forget we’re watching another origin story. There’s a climatic scene I wish I could describe, because it perfectly encapsulates the weirdness of this movie, but it’s too spoilery. You’ll know it when you see it.
So, no, Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is not an arrogant-yet-charming defense contractor. Instead, he’s an arrogant-yet-charming brain surgeon. Strange is very good at his job and he knows it. He also is extremely picky about his patients: Sometimes he will turn a person down because it’s too easy and there’s no glory; sometime he feels a patient is a lost cause and it would damage Strange’s “perfect record.” Yes, he’s a jerk. He doesn’t seem to be much of a playboy, instead living alone in his New York City penthouse, pontificating about his past love with fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). We don’t find out much about why they are no longer together, but we are treated to one scene of Strange treating her like complete garbage. So there’s that. (My bet is she realized, “Doctor Strange? More like Doctor Jerk.”)
Strange is involved in a serious automobile accident and is hospitalized for a significant amount of time. He recovers, but his hands are so badly damaged he’ll never be able to shave on his own again, let alone perform surgery. After blowing through his fortune seeking out an experimental treatment, he takes a last ditch effort trip to Nepal to search for a mysterious person known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) – who helped cure a paraplegic man (Benjamin Bratt) who Strange had turned down as a “lost cause.”
As it turns out, The Ancient One is not versed in medicine, but instead knows the secrets of tapping into other dimensions and the use of sorcery. Strange is a quick learner, and soon – alongside Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose character becomes more important as the story goes on) and Wong (Benedict Wong) – finds himself in an interdimensional battle with one of The Ancient One’s former students, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, who is having quite the couple of months between this and Rogue One).
I enjoyed Doctor Strange a lot more than I thought I would. Not that I didn’t think director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) could produce a good Doctor Strange movie, but more because introducing a new superher seems like such a thankless task nowadays. Moviegoers don’t love origin stories anymore, but Strange’s world is so strange bizarre, there’s really no way to just have this guy show up with his interdimensional thought-beam weapons, and sling rings, and magic cloak (which, here, has a personality of its own) and not offer some sort of two-hour explanation. This movie is your two-hour explanation. And Derrickson and crew offer enough dazzling visual eye candy that it almost hides what we are actually watching. Again, it’s almost a thankless task these days but Doctor Strange finds a way to make even the mundane seem unique.
It’s obvious why they hired a big time star like Cumberbatch, because Doctor Strange is here to guide us through the next decade of Marvel movies, just like Downey did in the last decade. Doctor Strange is basically a reboot of Iron Man, only with a lot more prettier things to look at while you’re stoned. It’s a good strategy. And it works.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.