First Hit: I fully enjoyed the film and Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect as Dr. Stephen Strange.
What makes this film work and hold together is the acting of Cumberbatch. In fact, one could take out some of the special effects and this film still works.
Strange is a compulsive, arrogant, and a larger than life self-aggrandizing surgeon. His surety and cavalier way of performing surgery are displayed in opening scenes. He’s listening to music and then challenges one of his assistants to change up the music and give him a music quiz. The song his assistant hopes to trip him up on is Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good” which the assistant says came out in 1978 while Strange argues correctly that it was released in 1977. This was a superb way to display who he is.
Then, to solidify the point, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), rushes into the OR and asks Dr. Strange to look at a patient who they are about to harvest for organs. Her claim is that the patient can be saved and isn’t brain dead. Strange looks at the medical x-rays, scans and diagnosis documents, moves the patient to ER and pulls a bullet out of the patient’s head, thereby stopping the organ harvest, keeping the man alive. He only cares about his success at being right and competent and sort of rejects the patient's family's thanks. Lastly Dr. Palmer shows a deeper than friendship interest in him but he just sluffs it off putting his needs ahead of everything.
However, he gets hurt in an accident and destroys his hands. Without having his surgical skills available he ends up with nothing and takes one last trip looking for Kamar-Taj, a place that may be able to provide him help in getting his hands back. While in Kathmandu he ends up meeting “The Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton). She calls him out on his arrogance and self-centeredness and demonstrates that there is more to life than the physical world. She demonstrates alternate realities and it shocks Strange into curiosity and then wanting to become a student. As The Ancient One points out, Strange still thinks of only himself but takes him on as a student because he’s got abilities and really wants to learn.
The film ultimately is about two things: First, the fight between good (light) and evil (darkness). And two, about how to live by putting others first. To this end, the film is interesting, however, I do believe that the number of spectacular visual scenes to represent the fragility of most peoples’ perception of reality were not needed. At first the spinning of the streets and buildings into different spatial realities were cool and interesting to watch. But after a while it took away from the story and acting which was very strong.
Cumberbatch was extraordinary good in this fantasy film. He brought a serious, adventurous and human context to the character regardless of the topsy-turvy visual convolutions. Swinton was much better than I thought she would be. I struggled thinking that it needed to be an Asian spiritual leader because the film felt like it was sharing ancient Asian wisdom. However, from the get go, Swinton owned the role. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, The Ancient One’s right hand person, was excellent. He put an edge into the film that made it better. McAdams was wonderful as Strange’s co-surgeon. Her humanness towards a difficult Strange was perfect. Benedict Wong (as Wong) was delightful. His protective seriousness of the spiritual path and library worked well against Strange’s behavior. Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill wrote a wonderful screenplay, which was enhanced by the use of humor and interesting dialogue among the characters. Derrickson had a strong hand on the tiller of this film. I only thought that he used CGI more than needed.
Overall: Although the film is not Oscar worthy, I thoroughly enjoyed the film and that is the point.