Marvel has proven time and again that they love casting actors known for smaller projects, and turning them into massive movie stars in the middle of the gargantuan franchise that has become the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Such was the case with Benedict Cumberbatch, who has proven himself each time he has appeared in Marvel properties. His first outing as Doctor Stephen Strange was a solid introduction to the character and to the storylines that are still an integral part of the MCU.
This was such a perfect role for Benedict Cumberbatch, who has become something of a specialist in humanizing eccentric characters who are designed specifically around the female gaze. His mannerisms and appearance are a natural fit for the surgeon who lost everything and has to go on a quest to reconnect with his spiritual self. Even when his character is not particularly likable or sympathetic, he is nothing less than compelling to watch in every scene. His journey is relatable, even to us mortals who have never had to contend with the metaphysical realm.
If we really think about it, the addition of magic to the MCU was inevitable. Marvel has continued to push the boundaries of the superhero genre, and it was only a matter of time before the concept of multiple universes was used as it is in the comic books on which these movies are based. This has led to effectively unlimited opportunities to expand storylines and put characters in increasingly fantastical situations. The effects used in Doctor Strange are absolutely gorgeous and immersive. The movie never loses sense of the plot, however, and always brings the story back to the humanity of Earth’s newest sorcerer.
Rachel McAdams was a perfectly lovable sidekick/love-interest Dr. Christine Palmer. Although she and Cumberbatch certainly had chemistry, McAdams wasn’t given nearly enough screen time that an actress of her immense talent is due. Christine was a compelling character in her own right, and it was disappointing to see her constantly shunted to the side by her ex-boyfriend as he went on his own journey of self discovery. It looks like we will see more of this character in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, but it was a shame we saw so little of her in her first Marvel outing. She is yet another example of a female character being underutilized, despite being played by an incredibly talented actress. It’s a Marvel trend I’d love to see end any time now.
A pointed criticism of Doctor Strange that still holds up to this day was the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, a character clearly portrayed as Asian in the comic book on which this movie is based. Yes, these are all fictional characters, but it’s an indictment of Marvel that they couldn’t find a single Asian actor to play a character not only based off of an Asian comic book character, but surrounded in East Asian mythology. Although Tilda Swinton is an immensely talented actress, it’s a shame Marvel couldn’t be bothered to increase their minority representation.
It’s not possible to talk about Doctor Strange without talking about the legend that has become Wong (Benedict Wong). One of Marvel’s absolute top-tier secondary characters, Wong has become the backbone of the entire Marvel franchise with his deadpan delivery and heart that shines through every time he makes an appearance. His chemistry with each of his co-stars in Doctor Strange is unmatched, and has only continued to Marvel’s current projects. Every time he is given more screen time, it’s a win for Marvel fans.
Unfortunately, Doctor Strange also falls into Marvel’s classic third act and villain problems. All of the villains set up in this movie amount to nothing. Mads Mikkelsen is villainy personified and it was such a shame he was so underused in this movie and had his naturally menacing features hidden behind copious amounts of eye makeup. There was a legitimate giant purple villain in the sky, and while the third act gave us strong emotional character beats for Doctor Strange himself, there was little else to make the big action finale compelling. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo had a half decent set-up as a disgruntled former employee, but fans have never gotten to see anything else from this character to date.
Doctor Strange was ultimately a wonderful standalone entry in the MCU, which also set up future characters and storylines that are sure to be compelling. Benedict Cumberbatch may not have been everyone’s first choice to be a superhero, but he has completely taken this role and made it his own. He is the perfect choice to lead Marvel’s heroes through the Multiverse. Although not every aspect works perfectly, his first solo Marvel movie is absolutely worth re-visiting time and again.
Doctor Strange is currently available to stream on Disney+.