By Esosa Omo-Usoh
Any committed cinephile will tell you that the best thing that has happened to cinema in the last decade or thereabout is Marvel Cinematic Universe. This weekend, Marvel’s ever-expanding universe hit its 14th cycle with the release of Dr. Strange starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role.
If you were a fan of James Hadley Chase novels growing up, you might remember that for the most part, his novels were about crime capers and detective investigations. You will also recall how two of his novels (Make The Corpse Walk and Miss Shumway Waves A Wand) seemed to break away from the traditional thematic thrust of your typical James Hadley Chase novel by dabbling into the world of voodoo/magic, and that distinct different feeling you had reading them.
You get that same feeling with the latest installment from the Marvel franchise. It has the usual indicators one has come to expect from Marvel’s cinematic fares; the origin story of the smart-alec protagonist, the journey to self-discovery/acceptance, the smartly-written script chock-full of pop culture references, the obligatory but widely anticipated Stan Lee cameo and the post credit scenes that provide a sneak preview of the next installment from Marvel’s stables.
However, Dr. Strange (like the James Hadley Chase titles referenced above) had a decidedly different feel in its thematic thrust; the heavy emphasis on magic/mysticism. Now, whilst not saying Dr. Strange is the first time a Marvel movie has ventured into the supernatural and ethereal realm of abilities beyond the natural, in previous installments from MCU, these supernatural abilities came across as more advance science/technology than magic/mysticism as was the case in Dr. Strange.
The eponymous protagonist in Dr. Strange is a rock star of sorts in the unlikely profession of neurosurgery. He is arrogant, brash, and annoyingly self-confident with a knack for performing surgery to the strains of ChuckMangione playing in the background.
As is wont with insufferably arrogant genius-types, Dr. Strange’s preference for surgical patients tends towards those with complications/challenges that would fan the egotistical embers of his professional genius.
In the course of driving like a bat out of hell to a speaking engagement, and calling dibs on a list of awaiting surgery patients over the telephone, he becomes distracted resulting in a horrific car crash.
He comes to post surgery to a surgeon’s (especially an arrogant genius-type) worst nightmare; he had suffered irreversible damage to a surgeon’s most powerful tool after his brain, his hands. Battered but nonetheless arrogant, he decries the surgical efforts that saved his life (taking the expression “physician heal thyself” to arrogant new heights believing he could have done a better job himself), and goes through the motions of crazed impatience whilst craving an expedited healing process that all come to naught.
Having come to the realisation that orthodox medicine holds no solution to his problem, he seeks out a once-paraplegic patient (whose case was so bad, he was denied the assistance of Dr. Strange’s surgical genius) who had made a miraculous recovery. The patient points him towards Kathmandu in Nepal for a last-ditch chance at recovery.
His arrival in Kathmandu marks our last encounter with terra firma and all things natural and normal. He is mugged by some criminals who attempt to steal his watch but is saved by a hooded stalker who turns out to be an Obi Wan Kenobi-ishKarl Mordo played by Chinwetel Ejiofor.
Mordo takes him to the one whom he seeks; the Ancient One played by the gender/specie-bending but brilliant Tilda Swinton. Dr. Strange is desperate for a cure but one that appeals to his science palates. The Ancient One offers him one that veers towards the esoteric and mystical and this draws both his ire and arrogant dismissal.
Expectedly, she gives him a less than subtle out-of-body nudge that transports him to an ethereal realm that felt like a kaleidoscope of SalvadorDali’s paintings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s middle earth and an LSD-fuelled hallucination from a 60s rainbow tie-dye attire rock concert.
As it turns out, whilst the Avengers are protecting earth from the machinations of vile villains with universal expansionist ambitions like Thanos, earth is also within the crosshairs of supernaturals from other dimensions with multi-universal expansionist ambitions. The Ancient One and her sorcerers are tasked with the unenviable job of safeguarding the three portals protecting the earth located in London, New York and Hong Kong.
An insurrection in the order of sorcerers has seen the Ancient One’s former pupil, Kaecilius, join forces with an otherworld supernatural to conquer earth. The duels for supremacy between these opposing forces provide some of the most visually spectacular scenes in cinema in recent times.
Dr. Strange is a smorgasbord of visual and story arc previously explored in other movies but which this time around, were cranked up to the nth power.
The buildings-folding-into-each-other scenes previously seen in Christopher Nolan’s Inception got a rubik’s cube-ish upgrade that left you both mouth-agape impressed and dizzy.
The martial arts fight scenes that had a touch of Zen-artsiness in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and that seemed rather videogame-ish in the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix trilogy took on an ethereal realism in Dr. Strange.
The Zen-Bhuddist admonition to Dr. Strange to de-emphasize self in his quest for a cure in order to find his real purpose in the sacrifice of his selfish desires for the greater good draws parallels from the Wudangteachings in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and shades from the Matrix and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogies.
The time-bending and dimensions transcending worm holes bore more than a passing reference to similar themes in Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Interstellar respectively .
As the titular character, English actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, nailed a believable American accent, and channeled shades of fellow English actor, Hugh Laurie’s brash arrogance as Dr. Gregory House in House, and the self-centred playboy/rock star mien of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man.
As the Ancient One, Tilda Swinton carried on with her career-defining gender/specie-bending character portrayals. Although her casting as the Ancient One (as against the original description of the character as being male and Asian) drew criticisms of whitewashing and racism, the uniqueness of her performance should douse such criticisms, hopefully.
Dr. Strange is a visually-spectacular cinematic paean to self-discovery. It is a time and mind-bending triumph that transcends dimensions both in imagination and reality. It transports you from the plausible to the implausible but leaves you with an understanding that makes the implausible appear plausible.
It marks yet another origin story in Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic universe, and as we journey towards the denouement of the almost a decade-long MCU story arc.