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As the superhero genre continues to expand with connecting stories and widening casts of curious character both good and evil, the familiar premise for each is also wearing thin, with reluctant types thrust into action, acquiring a power, struggling to master it, then facing grave dangers. With Marvel’s latest entry, Doctor Strange, there’s no straying from the formula, even as the power shift from physical to mental, but like the others, has its share of high energy, good humor, and tons of action.
Starring a well-cast Benedict Cumberbatch as neurosurgeon Steven Strange, the film is an origin story, naturally, and follows the arrogant doctor as he begins the tale in a frightening auto crash that renders his hands useless, as least for his profession. In search of a means to heal them, he eventually ends up in Kamar-Taj, where he is taken in by a peculiar group of sorcerers led by the very powerful Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a bald, incredibly gifted user who is cryptic and seemingly all-knowing. There, he learns of their use of opening portals to the astral plane and the manipulation of time itself. Under the Ancient One’s tutelage, he comes into the fold and takes his place as protector of the Earth.
Directed by Scott Derrickson, Doctor Strange is a visual-effects-heavy film that is undeniably creative if not overly-done, with much of the movie’s 115 minutes of runtime devoted to the magic-based combat that sees entire cities twist and turn, populated by endless streams of golden lights and sparks as the sorcerers conjure and conjure their way through one fight after another. Made interesting by its great cast, featuring Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, the main villain, it does what it intends in setting up the next chapter of the Marvel Universe. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
Studying under the Ancient One and Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) another master of the arts, Strange learns from the temple librarian (Benedict Wong) that Earth is encased by an enormous shield, stabilized by three sanctums, in London, Hong Kong, and New York City. Together, these locations prevent attackers from other dimensions to invade our world, most specifically, a mystical entity called Dormammu, who lives in the Dark Dimension where there is no time. Wanting Dormammu to come in order to give humanity eternal life, Kaecilius has stolen pages of an ancient text and opened a portal.
This act destroys the London Sanctum, which in turns vaults Strange from Kamar-Taj to New York, where at this Sanctum, he witnesses Kaecilius murder the protector. Facing the evil master and his minions, Strange, who has yet to fully control or understand his powers but who has cheated a bit and read powerful books he shouldn’t have, defends the Sanctum, battling Kaecilius in an epic showdown.
It is during this combat that Strange is thrust into a glass cabinet containing the ‘Cloak of Levitation’, a deep crimson, high-collar cape that is nearly sentient, able to move on its own and, realizing Strange is about to master his new strength, chooses him as its master. Lucky thing, too, as it’s at this moment when Kaecilius is about to deal the death blow to a defeated Strange. From here, the cloak straps itself to the back of the good Doctor and the two combine to subdue Kaecilius. Extra points for style.
So let’s unpack this moment. The path of the hero is almost always one where it is laid upon them with sudden unexpected force, one born out of necessity, and as such, Strange follows suit. The very instant he learns that he is now part of a intergalactic defense project, he reminds Mordo and the librarian that he only came here to heal his hands, not to fight. Of course, this is precisely when Kaecilius attacks and Strange is right up to his neck in the battle. It’s a classic trope, and yet, done really well.
It’s not like we don’t know Strange is going to join the mystics, because well, obviously he will, but like any story that begs a mortal man to reach to places he has never gone, it inspires. Think to one of the greats, John McClane (Bruce Willis) from the Die Hard series, a regular cop who ends up saving, well, just about everyone over the course of five films, and you seen where the potential lies. Here, though, what’s more important, at least in this story, is the transformation. Strange is an aggressively arrogant and self-centered man, who, although a doctor saving lives very well, is not above taking praise whenever he can.
Finding himself in the New York City Sanctum as things spiral out of control, we see a more altruistic Strange emerge, even as he remains unsure of what is happening and the consequences of all involved. Notice his almost instinctive call to action when the protector of the Sanctum is slain, what is essentially a personal sacrifice as he is outnumbered and potentially out-powered. This is what heroes do. And it is for this reason that when, after cleverly sending minions to far away lands using a portal device in the building, now alone with the superior Kaecilius, the Cloak of Levitation comes into play, making the choice to bond with Strange. It levels the match and gives Strange the power of weightlessness and rudimentary flight. This is the moment when doctor strange becomes Doctor Strange.
Derrickson understands well the markers he’s got to hit in order to make this work, knowing that the protagonist must be at their lowest point in order for the ascension to have the best effect. Demonstrating quick-thinking and reflexes is one thing, but in the fight, we see that as well as Strange holds up against Kaecilius, it’s not going to be enough. He is going to lose unless something saves him or he is able to smart his way out. The Cloak offers that chance and even as this moment seems victorious, there is another challenge that sends Strange back even further, ultimately putting him one the right side of the fight.
While the film gets bogged down in its effects and almost obsessive need for fighting, this particular moment is a good one, with a new hero coming of age of sorts, a man humbled by powers beyond his imagination and threats that are almost impossible to believe. As he learns his place in it all, the choice of an ancient relic to join with him marks the start of the next chapter for the hero, one born from an accident, raised on arrogance, and made true with humility.