As winter draws in and the evenings lengthen, magic comes to New York City. JK Rowling’s Newt Scamander will be chasing down his unleashed beasts in the first instalment of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Dr Stephen Strange, Master of the Mystical Arts, joins the ever-growing team of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s superhero pack in the November 4 release Doctor Strange.
Played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Strange is a bit of an oddity in the current line-up of MCU heroes. Unlike Captain America, the quintessential American hero with his blond locks, dreamy blue eyes, and helicopter-pushing muscles, Strange is not a soldier, at least not in the conventional sense. He is no millionaire playboy, like Tony Stark, quick with a quip, disguising heroism with a sense of nonchalance. As Karl Mordo (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) says in one of the several Doctor Strange trailers that have graced the internet: “The Avengers protect the world from physical dangers. We safeguard against more mystical threats.” Strange is the Marvel Universe’s master of these mystic arts, and the film showcases his rise to that position, the threats he will have to face down in order to (you guessed it) save the world from Mads Mikkelsen’s renegade Kaecilius.
Strange is not the blond-haired, husky do-gooder that Hollywood has conventionally patronised as a sex symbol. That’s more Captain America’s shtick. Then again, Cumberbatch is not your typical Hollywood sex bomb either. Pale of skin, with a long face and a curiously cold countenance, the actor has managed to win legions of fans despite his choice of curiously sexless roles. Cumberbatch sprang into international prominence playing the slightly sociopathic, awkward Sherlock of BBC’s Sherlock, a man whose ability to reason and deduce a sequence of events is so advanced that people literally stumble after him, unable to comprehend his trips through his “mind palace”.
After this, Cumberbatch played Alan Turing, the tragic mathematician, in The Imitation Game (2014), a role for which he earned his first Oscar nomination. Cumberbatch is no stranger to the geek community either. Besides Sherlock, he has voiced Smaug, the smouldering dragon of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies, and the villainous Khan of the new Star Trek films.
At first, Cumberbatch was thought to appeal to a certain segment of the female population – the geek girls who valued thought over matter and prided themselves on a certain intellectual superiority. Not for them the Brad Pitt of yesteryears or the bevy of Hollywood Chrises (Hemsworth, Pine, Pratt, Evans). The “Cumberbitches”, as Cumberbatch’s female fans call themselves, can listen to their chosen heartthrob recite Shakespeare or watch him smoulder in thought and take equal pleasure in both.
Cumberbatch’s appeal combines a certain old world charm with ruthless intelligence, the two sides of his persona we see filtered through his YouTube recordings and his choice of films. He has also proven time and again that he is open to just having fun, engaging in dance-offs with fellow British intellectual hot man, Tom Hiddleston. The appeal of both Cumberbatch and Hiddleston, in contrast to that of their compatriot, Tom Hardy, lies in the channelling of what seems almost stereotypically British qualities – the pale skin, the quiet and polite voice, the reading of classic poetry and cloaking of skin in tailored suits and propriety – and presenting them in the often larger than life, glitz and glam arena of Hollywood. They present a contrast to the more relaxed, casual persona of surfer dude Chris Hemsworth or the man’s man appeal of Chris Pratt.
Hiddleston channels his inner bad boy in Loki, Thor’s half brother in the Marvel films. But even here he is less of a grandstanding world-destroyer in the spirit of Magneto than he is a suave, witty demigod, propelled by grief and a desire to prove himself and almost inevitably gaining the sympathy of viewers. Thor 2: The Dark World was livened by Loki’s presence, and many fans criticised Avengers: Age of Ultron for its lack of Hiddleston. Again, Loki is not the conventional choice for a sex symbol, but Hiddleston’s verve and wit – what is presented as his verve and wit, rather – have made him a compelling character in the Marvel franchise.
Cumberbatch’s track record suggests that he will be able to channel his considerable star power and charisma into raising Strange to the same level. On November 4, instead of viewing clips of Captain America pushing away a helicopter, muscles straining with the effort, the world will be drooling over Strange as he waves his fingers and does battle in realities that we mundane people can only dream of. After all, stranger things have happened.