I’ll be honest. Movies based on comic books don’t interest me. The only reason I went to see Doctor Strange over the weekend was Benedict Cumberbatch. I’ve become a major fan after his performances in the latest BBC version of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and his movies, particularly The Imitation Game, in which he played mathematician Alan Turing, and as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate. Doctor Strange was another chance to see him in action.
My wife, a teacher who works with autistic children, pointed out rightly that Cumberbatch has a knack for playing individuals with personalities on either end of the bell curve. Armchair diagnosticians might argue he plays characters who are “on the spectrum,” as “average” people say, sometimes with a mocking laugh. Holmes, Turing, and Assange are all high-functioning, extremely intelligent people with trouble connecting emotionally to others. They aren’t mentally ill, just so different they make others around them uncomfortable.
The Doctor Strange character is right up Cumberbatch’s alley
The character of Doctor Strange is right up Cumberbatch’s alley. In fact, the actor has now become the go-to guy for brilliant quirkiness. In the movie, Strange is a neurosurgeon who takes on the riskiest operations with hardly a thought. He’s a technician, not a healer. One day, in a demonstration of his outsized ego, he wrecks his car and his career in an accident that destroys his hands, a surgeon’s most important instruments. When western medicine can no longer help him, he seeks healing in eastern mysticism, discovering redemption and the ubiquitous superhero cape in Nepal under the tutelage of a character named “The Ancient One.”
Strange’s story dominates the narrative, as does Cumberbatch’s performance. Most of the other performances appear pale, even flat, next to his. Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is one-dimensional, which is more the fault of the film’s writers, not his. Chiweto Ejiofor tries too hard to give Shakespearean heft to his Baron Karl Mordo. Tilda Swinton does a fine job as The Ancient One, but she is miscast. During production, critics argued that casting a British woman as an elderly Asian male was a case of “white-washing,” casting white actors as minorities. Without getting into the politics, it’s hard to believe that the producers couldn’t find a qualified Asian star among the dozens of experienced film actors in the Far East.
Apart from Cumberbatch, the visuals make Doctor Strange work. The producers took inspiration from M.C. Escher‘s oddball drawings and paintings, as well as the visual effects of the 2010 film Inception. The chases through a queerly shaped and actively morphing New York are mind-bending, and Strange’s travels through other universes recall the journey of astronaut David Bowman’s psychedelic space trip in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Just when you thought Hollywood couldn’t top the last visual effects spectacle, Doctor Strange takes things one step further.
The film will thrill fans of superhero movies, and there’s plenty of hints of a sequel and/or tie-in with other Marvel Comics properties. Nothing stands alone in Hollywood any more. Movie-goers looking for something deeper will shrug as the characters mouth the usual lectures from sages in robes about western thought’s lack of spiritual appreciation. So what? It’s a good afternoon’s entertainment, especially for Benedict Cumberbatch groupies.
What do you think? Are you a Cumberbatch groupie?