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Beyond Dr. Strange: Benedict Cumberbatch’s best geek roles

Benedict Cumberbatch is a twice Oscar-nominated (for The Imitation Game and The Power of the Dog), classically-trained actor who has triumphed in a wealth of premiere stage, screen, and TV roles, including Danny Boyle’s staging of Frankenstein at the Royal National Theater, Parade’s End, Patrick Melrose, Atonement, 1917, and the well-regarded 2011 version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, among many other highbrow productions.

That career alone would be the envy of most of his contemporaries. But even beyond this exemplary output, Cumberbatch has blasted into the stratosphere of movie stardom by appearing in some of the entertainment world’s most iconic franchises. After achieving instant worldwide fame with his contemporary take on Sherlock Holmes, then becoming a mainstay of the globally dominant Marvel Cinematic Universe, Cumberbatch’s geek-friendly output already rivals peers who have been in the business twice as long. To mark the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, we celebrate the actor’s lordship over the geek domain.

Sherlock Holmes – Sherlock (2010 – 2017)

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman star in Sherlock.

Sherlock is the beloved BBC series that launched Cumberbatch into international stardom, churning up legions of fans on both sides of the Atlantic who frothed at the mouth in anticipation of new episodes (which never seemed to come quickly enough as the in-demand stars tried to coordinate their schedules). A smart update of the hoary old property (arguably smarter than Guy Ritchie’s physically aggressive Sherlock Holmes version starring Robert Downey Jr., made during the same period), Sherlock relocated the Baker Street detective to present-day London, reimagined him as a brilliant, “high-functioning sociopath” with an empathy disorder, while making his faithful sidekick, Watson (Martin Freeman), into a PTSD-afflicted veteran of the War in Afghanistan. These updates laid the groundwork for more contemporary stories in which the dynamic duo could work to foil terrorism, domestic surveillance, and other digital-era dangers while developing a fraught friendship.

The BBC produced 13 feature-length episodes of Sherlock between 2010-2017, and though the quality of the stories varies wildly, viewers were mainly invested in the characters and the relationships, especially the one between Holmes and Watson that launched a million fan- and slash-fiction stories. Sherlock made Cumberbatch into a geek icon, and his status would only grow from there.

Doctor Strange – The Marvel Cinematic Universe  (2016 – )

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Dr. Strange in The Avengers.

Nothing ups your geek cred like appearing in the most popular comic book/superhero franchise in the world as one of its leading characters. Cumberbatch got into the MCU during its hugely popular “Phase Three” and has appeared in some of its best-reviewed and most financially successful entries. His origin story Doctor Strange (2016) was well-received, with critics and fans especially praising his performance (along with his American accent). A year later he appeared in one of the most beloved of the MCU outings, Thor: Ragnarok (2017). Although it’s little more than a cameo, his part is critical and allows him to share some witty moments with Thor and Loki (magically serving up Thor a giant self-refilling tankard of beer, making Loki fall through a cosmic hole for twenty minutes).

After that he helped save the known universe in the twin behemoths, Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), then secured L.A.T.S. (Life After Tony Stark) by hopping into the MCU/Sony collaboration, Spider-Man No Way Home (2021), which became one of the all-time box-office hits. Now he brings his Spider-Man participation full circle by appearing in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) directed by Sam Raimi, the B-movie boss who started it all with the Web Slinger’s original outing for Sony 20 years ago. Given Cumberbatch’s immense popularity in the franchise that keeps on giving (to audiences and shareholders alike), more appearances as Dr. Strange are likely forthcoming.

Smaug and the Necromancer – The Hobbit Trilogy (2012 – 2014)

Benedict Cumberbatch voices Smaug in Peter Jackson's Hobbit movies.
New Line

A can’t-miss proposition that, well, missed, largely due to the greed of the various parties who expanded J.R.R. Tolkien’s slim children’s volume into three bloated movies — The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey (2012), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014). Compounding issues was the late-in-the-day hiring of original Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson to replace the departed Guillermo del Toro, surely depriving cinephiles the world over of Orcs sprouting goat horns.

For fans, all this content did mean lots of Cumberbatch. The actor gives voice to the famous dragon, Smaug, in a (very) extended sequence in the second movie, as well as the “Necromancer,” actually a famous character from The Lord of the Rings hanging out in a stronghold and pulling a Voldemort until he can regain his dark power.

The project leveraged Cumberbatch’s geek appeal to reunite him with his Sherlock co-star Martin Freeman, who played the eponymous Bilbo Baggins, though given the ponderousness of the material, the wit and warmth that the two actors generated on their earlier series just wasn’t there. In fact, Freeman himself barely appears in the third film. For a movie trilogy titled, “The Hobbit,” there isn’t, by the end, very much actual hobbit — though we are treated to the sight of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), nowhere to be found in the original novel, scrambling up a pair of airborne stairs like Super Mario. For obvious reasons, even Jackson later admitted that the movies just weren’t very good, though they contributed to the ever-growing Cumberbatch geek pantheon.

Khan Noonien Singh Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Benedict Cumberbatch and Karl Urban star in Star Trek into Darkness.

Cumberbatch’s one Star Trek appearance is minimal compared to his multiple outings in Sherlock, the MCU, and The Hobbit trilogy; however, that appearance, in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), looms large for geeks everywhere, given that he played one of the most iconic Star Trek characters ever: Khan Noonien Singh. Of course, Khan as played by Ricardo Montalban had appeared in a first season episode of the original series, then returned in a quest for vengeance against Enterprise Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and company in the classic sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982).

Given that Star Trek II is considered a high point both for Star Trek and sci-fi/action cinema in general, a general consternation arose when it was rumored that Cumberbatch might play Khan (although the production tried to keep it a secret, announcing that the actor would appear as Starfleet officer John Harrison). Fans were also befuddled by the casting of a white Englishman in the role of an Indian national played by a Mexican.

Of course, Cumberbatch was playing Khan in a reimagining of the character that drew decidedly mixed reviews. His name, history, ethnicity, etc., were all changed by the “Kelvin Timeline,” — producer/director J.J. Abrams’s narrative strategy for rebooting Star Trek in an alternate universe. Trekkers were not especially thrilled by some of the story decisions involving Khan in the movie, as well as the way Into Darkness parallels the original Star Trek II. But taken apart from these other considerations, Cumberbatch is a strong screen presence in this sequel to Abrams’ Star Trek (2009), and makes a worthy foil for Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), and the Enterprise crew as they try to prevent galactic war.

The Grinch, Shere Khan, Aunt Spiker, et. al. – Classic Children’s Animation

Benedict Cumberbatch voices The Grinch in the 2018 version of the film.

Given his classical training and his success in the theater, as well as a voice that evokes Orson Welles in its majestic rumbling timbre, it makes sense that Cumberbatch would lend his talents to animation and children’s fantasy films such as The Hobbit. Among other major roles, he has voiced the title character in the 2018 animated version of The Grinch, the tiger, Shere Khan, in Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (directed by Andy Serkis, himself no slouch in the voice acting department), and Aunt Spiker for a charity reading of James and the Giant Peach with Taika and Friends.

Cumberbatch has also lent his voice to the Madagascar animated series entry, Penguins of Madagascar, the classic U.K. children’s book, The Tiger that Came to Tea, and Marvel’s What If…? (as Dr. Strange). Oh, yeah, and he also intoned Satan for the TV version of Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens. Though not a children’s classic, for Pratchett fans the world over, it is yet another beloved property added to Cumberbatch’s growing geek oeuvre. Many more are sure to come.

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