Synopsis: A surgeon seeking healing at a sort-of-monastery gets more than he bargained for when he becomes Doctor Strange.
Marvel’s latest character to make it to the silver screen is Doctor Strange, played with alacrity by Benedict Cumberbatch. Doctor Strange doesn’t have a superpower nor is he from another planet. He’s a surgeon who becomes a sorcerer. Yes, that is an uncommon career path. But life does have its twists and turns. Ostensibly, the movie is a straightforward origin story, but after seeing it a second time, it is clearly a commentary about the susceptibility of people in crisis to exploitation, even, as in this case, vulnerability to cult recruitment.
At first you’d think that Dr. Stephen Strange couldn’t be persuaded to join a cult. He’s a super accomplished neurosurgeon with gobs of confidence, governed by his supremely rational brain and vanity. In fact, he’s pretty much an arrogant bastard. He runs herd over the hospital staff and treats his ex girlfriend, fellow physician Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), in an off-hand manner.
But everything is about to change…One night he’s zipping down the road in his luxe car when he has an accident and plunges over a cliff side. He’s mightily injured in the crash and his hands– his surgeon hands!– are destroyed. Dr. Strange goes broke looking for a miracle treatment, all the while verbally abusing his ex and insulting anyone else who tries to help him. He eventually ends up in Nepal at a sort-of-monastery where, it is alleged, the mind can heal the body. There he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, creepy as usual and definitely not an Asian man, as in the comic books ). She rants about re-orienting the spirit and something called the astral dimension. One of her devotees, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), looks on feverishly while supplicants (unpaid, I’m sure) drift about offering tea. Who knows what’s in that tea, but when Dr. Strange voices his skepticism, the Ancient One aka the Bizarre One sends him on a bad trip that threatens to induce a total psychotic break. That’s enough to convince him that, thorough her direction, he will learn to “harness energy from the multiverse.” Once he’s a certified magician he believes he’ll be able to heal his hands and return to work with newly nimble fingers.
The poor guy goes to his monk’s cell to study ancient nonsense screeds and is put through grueling physical training with other inductees that includes making circles in the air with their arms over and over again. If you can make your air circle spark, it becomes a time portal for you to jump through. Sure… Oh, she also makes the members fight each other. It couldn’t be clearer that this is a cult, but desperate Dr. Strange buys in.
The Bizarre One solidifies her power over these poor wretches by creating a shared delusion that a rival cult, led by Mads Mikkelsen, is endeavoring to bring evil to the Earth. He and his followers wear glittery lizard patterned eye makeup and steal forbidden books from libraries. The Bizarre One claims that her “sanctums” in New York, London and Hong Kong are in danger of being destroyed by Mads. She insists that the sanctum buildings form protective shields for the earth, but it’s obvious that they are cult fundraising centers.
At one point, vibrant with lucidity, Dr. Strange declares that he just wanted to heal his hands, not be involved in some mystical war. Oh, good, you think, he’s getting his senses back. But then his mind tips off the precipice when he is befriended by a magic cape, the Cloak of Levitation. It is at this time that he announces he is Doctor Strange.
No spoilers, but at one point he arrives back at the hospital and fills-in his ex on his new associates and activities. He assures her, It’s not a cult. She retorts, Well, that’s what a cultist would say. Exactly!
The first time I saw the movie, I watched it from the Marvel Comic Universe POV, wherein the viewer is thrilled by the mystical fight between good and evil. Less naive the second time around, I was pulling for the intervention of a good deprogramming team and tax evasion charges against the cult leader. Maybe that will be in the next installment…
Cut to the Chase: Benny C. and his cape (so impish!) make movie magic.
Comedy Highlight: Mads Mikkelsen, of course. He totally commits to his preposterous character: Kaecilius. Lol, that name.