When Doctor Strange was introduced into the Marvel comics in 1963, it was considered quite a departure from his wildly popular and comparatively conventional predecessors like Thor, Captain America and Spider-Man. Doctor Strange was psychedelic, hallucinogenic, weird and, most importantly, a bold step in a new and freeing direction for the comics.
It’s not unlike the environment from which the new Doctor Strange film, out Friday, is emerging. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the arrogant neurosurgeon turned mystical sorcerer, Disney, Marvel and everyone involved hopes that it’s as mind-bending and disruptive as the Steve Ditko-imagined comic was at the time. There have been 13 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date, but instead of going into autopilot for No. 14, Doctor Strange not only kicks the engine into hyper drive, but into a different dimension as well.
“Audiences need new images and I think visual effects are used too often to just blow things up and do the same familiar kinds of stuff,” said director Scott Derrickson. Best known for horror films like Sinister and Deliver Us from Evil, Derrickson faced stiff competition for the job, but won out over the others with his clear vision and deep fan appreciation. He explained to Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige that he wanted every set piece in the film to be the “weirdest” scene from any other Marvel film. It was what the studio was looking for, too.
“I was pleasantly surprised by how much it lined up with what they wanted,” Derrickson said. “They know that the (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and comic book movies in general have to evolve or they’re going to decline.”
Derrickson and an army of artists, set designers, and visual effects specialists worked tirelessly to create a new visual language for the movie, bending time, space and cityscapes within recognizable scenes. The spectacle is in support of an origin story about Dr. Stephen Strange, whose life is upended after a traumatic accident that renders his hands unusable and effectively ends his career. He goes to Nepal to search for a cure and gets swept up by the magic he finds in a secretive group led by a mysteriously powerful woman known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). They’re battling dark forces, personified by Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen, and can open up portals or turn the world into a mirror image of itself with a twist of the fingers. We told you it was trippy.
Swinton says it felt like being invited to join the circus, in a good way.
“It’s like, ‘Here are three ponies with plumes coming out of their heads. Will you put on a tutu to work with them?’ ‘Yeah, I will! And do I get to play with a clown?’ ‘Yeah you do!’ ‘Do I get to play with a trapeze?’ ‘Yeah maybe in the sequel,’” Swinton said.
It was the playful nature of it that got Mikkelsen on board, too. A lifelong Bruce Lee fan and a former gymnast, the Danish actor was in as soon as Derrickson mentioned that “flying Kung fu” would be involved.
“I thought ‘hey, I’m 51, I can do flying Kung fu,’” Mikkelsen said. “It’s about time.” He has the bruises to prove it.
Everyone was pushed to their limits in some way. Even Rachel McAdams, whose earth-bound character Christine, a nurse at the hospital, had a bit of green screen work to contend with for a fun set piece. She also got to see the amusing sight of Cumberbatch strung up on wires and flying around the room.
“He’s so fun and he’s got a wicked sense of humour,” McAdams said.
Doctor Strange is the first big test of Cumberbatch’s star power. He’s got a rabidly devoted set of fans from starring in the BBC series Sherlock, and he’s earned the attention of the motion picture academy for his performance in The Imitation Game, but he has yet to lead a major franchise. Still, the powers that be wanted him so much, they even delayed production and release so they could get him. (Cumberbatch was busy with Hamlet).
“Will this make him a movie star? I think,” Derrickson said. “The real question is: does an actor have a potential to be a movie star? Do they have it in them to be a movie star? That’s not always about acting abilities. They just have a certain molecular density to their look and they have a certain vibrancy to their on-screen presence that pops for an audience. There’s no question that he has that.”
Cumberbatch is a little nervous, but mostly about how audiences are going to receive the film.
“I had a life before and I’ll have a life after. Do I care? Of course I do. Because primarily because we put a lot of love and effort into it, business aside. And hopefully the business of it, like it does with the best stuff, reflects if it’s done with good intentions.”
Now he’s just soaking up the fun of it, while trying to stay awake on the gruelling international press tour. And, jet lag aside, he’s still tickled about the “lunchbox” thing too, and the extreme level of marketing involved in selling a film this big.
“The size of the billboards!” Cumberbatch marvelled. “I just giggle. I giggle a bit.”
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