When Steve Ditko and Stan Lee introduced Doctor Strange to comic book readers in 1963, they promised the wiry “master of black magic” would be “a different kind of superhero.” And he was: He seemed to be the first costumed psychotherapist.
That initial story opens not on Strange, but on a troubled businessman, haunted by a figure who stalks him in his sleep. He intrudes on Strange’s Greenwich Village sanctum, and the mage promises to relieve his visitor’s torment by traveling into his dreams. In the brief pages that follow, he does just that, struggling with a demon known as Nightmare while uncovering this patient’s guilty secret along the way. With the aid of his master, the mysterious Ancient One, Strange escapes. Back in the waking world, he convinces his patient to confess his crimes and sends him on his way.
On its surface, Marvel’s new Doctor Strange film—ably anchored by a charismatic Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role—is a different sort of story. Though its credits nod to the contributions of Ditko and Lee—the latter of whom makes his usual cringe-worthy cameo—it owes more to the ambitiously odd work of creators like Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner. Here, you’ll see more feats of time-twisting magic than of brain-bending analysis, as sorcerers slip through portals and dash up the sides of buildings. This is probably the first superhero film in which characters fight by voguing at one another, hands spinning balletically around their faces and bodies as beams of energy arc outward.
Look a little closer, however, and you’ll notice the traces of that first comic book vignette. Whatever its other delights, this is a return to the Doctor Strange of old, the therapeutic tale of a man delving deep into the byways of the brain. It is a story of transference and counter-transference, one haunted by the residue of desperate dreams and half-dead fantasies.
An accomplished but arrogant surgeon, Strange only takes on patients who will help him increase his fame or enlarge his bank account. (In one of the film’s few nods to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, he refuses to work on War Machine, paralyzed in Captain America: Civil War, a similarly enjoyable film, albeit one with a more developed sense of play.) Soon, however, a catastrophic car accident leaves his hands irreparably mangled and he finds he’s no longer capable of the precision operations that were his stock in trade. The image of his mangled digits becomes a recurring motif in the scenes that follow, a gory image that at once speaks to director Scott Derrickson’s thoroughgoing attention to detail and marks the corporeal fact of Strange’s tragic fall.
After a series of experimental surgeries leaves Strange penniless and no healthier than he was before, the doctor seeks out other cures. His quest takes him to Kathmandu, where he falls under the literal spell of the enigmatic Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, warm and alien), a powerful guru who trains him in the ways of sorcery. His monastic idyll is interrupted by the machinations of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former disciple of the Ancient One who wants to summon the unspeakably evil cosmic being Dormammu, potentially destroying our very reality in the process.
Caked in heavy, elaborate eye makeup that you’ll see on many faces at future Comic-Cons, Mikkelsen is a treasure of sinister monstrosity, sure to delight those who reveled in his star turn as Hannibal Lecter. In one early scene, he casually decapitates a hapless librarian with the kind of badass insouciance that Will Smith tried and failed to pull off in the dour Suicide Squad. By contrast, Cumberbatch’s Strange sometimes fumbles as he’s learning the ways of magic. Cumberbatch himself, however, gives a formidable performance, effortlessly conveying each beat of Strange’s emotional journey—from defeated man of science to triumphant sorcerer supreme—while remaining consistently human throughout.
Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Strange’s ally Mordo) are similarly impressive: Both would be fascinating to watch for the way they move in their gorgeous, layered robes (by Academy Award–winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne) alone. Mordo in particular—always villainous in the comics—emerges here as a fully realized presence, one whose inevitable descent (in future films, presumably) will be all the more compelling for his sympathetic portrayal here. Benedict Wong—confusingly cast as Strange’s mononymic pal Wong—manages to be funnier as a quiet straight man than many actors would be while delivering streams of jokes. Only Rachel McAdams’ Dr. Christine Palmer is wasted. As Strange’s love interest, she is never a mere damsel in distress, but she serves little individual purpose, apart from providing her paramour someone to apologize to.
Thanks in part to its charming cast, and despite its serious intentions, Doctor Strange is a pleasantly silly film, with plenty of humor hiding amid all the reality-distorting special effects and high-flying action. Largely eschewing the baroque dialogue of the early comics—and the high camp that went with it—Derrickson and his co-writers embrace the blithe banter of other Marvel films. There’s even a great deal of physical comedy, much of it from Strange’s ornery cloak of levitation. In one scene, it separates from the hero and wraps itself around one of his anonymous enemies, repeatedly slamming the malefactor’s head into the ground. In another, it gently reaches out and dries Strange’s tear-stained face, seemingly unbidden. Like Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot before it, this animate artifact will likely prove itself the film’s true breakout star.
Ultimately, though, it’s Doctor Strange’s return to its protagonist’s long lost psychotherapeutic roots that works best. We don’t, the Ancient One tells Strange, defeat our demons, so much as we rise above them. Her point, which the film repeatedly affirms, is that the physician must heal himself—and that he can only do so by looking within. The film turns what could have been a trite insight into a rousing spectacle in the sequence in which Strange travels into Dormammu’s dark dimension, a void full of floating bulbous globes connected by knotted pathways. Clearly inspired by similar locales in the comics, it still looks like nothing so much as a woven mass of neurons, axons, and dendrites—the human mind reimagined as some monstrous maze.
Though the film’s clever resolution to Strange’s inner conflict is better seen than described, suffice to say that it finds Strange willfully revisiting his painful past trauma, much as a patient might while reclining on a therapist’s couch. In this bizarre elsewhere, the neurosurgeon becomes a therapist once again, this time by confronting his own nightmares and reclaiming his own power from them. It is only fitting that, in the process, the film lets him find his peace by distantly nodding to the story that began it all.