Do you believe in magic? By the end of the second credits scene (no spoilers here!), even the most steadfast materialist will be compelled to admit that Marvel Studios and director Scott Derrickson have tapped into something truly enchanting with Doctor Strange.
Visually, Doctor Strange is a staggering feat of both imagination and technology, with dizzying, multi-dimensional mind-trips and action sequences that quite literally defy gravity. (It was cool in Inception, and it’s even cooler here). Tonally, Doctor Strange is familiar Marvel fare, seamlessly merging humor and pathos. Some might say it’s become too familiar — the brilliant, arrogant Stephen Strange can be difficult to distinguish from the brilliant, arrogant Tony Stark, after all — but Derrickson and fellow screenwriters Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill capitalize on the familiarity intrinsic to superhero origin stories in order to push the MCU further into surrealist mysticism than ever before.
Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly typecast as Doctor Stephen Strange, a successful neurosurgeon with a rampaging ego to match. (That American accent, though … Oh, Benedict.) When a brutal car crash cripples his hands and takes away his source of livelihood, Strange undergoes every possible procedure in a desperate attempt to regain the use of his hands — but to no avail. “No one could have done better,” his former lover and colleague, ER doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) tells him. A frustrated Strange responds bitterly: “I could’ve done better.”
After learning of the “miraculous” recovery of paralysis victim Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), Strange journeys to Tibet in search of the mysterious temple of Kamar-Taj. He is picked up off the street by Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a longtime student of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), the latter of whom teaches Strange to harness energy from the multiverse in order to “make magic.” I was a bit disappointed by the lack of nerdsplaining when it came to the intricacies of the sorcerers’ hand movements, but with a lot to pack into the movie, character growth and worldbuilding take precedence.
Though Strange taps into the mystical arts solely for selfish purposes, Wong (Benedict Wong), guardian of Kamar-Taj’s ancient relics and books, presents the role of Earth’s sorcerers within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “The Avengers protect the world from physical dangers,” he explains. “We safeguard it against more mystical threats.” In Doctor Strange, one of those “more mystical threats” is being unleashed by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson) in an effort, he says, to free humanity from its greatest enemy: time. And that’s where things get trippy.
When iconic comic book artist Steve Ditko first approached Stan Lee with the concept for Doctor Strange, he presented a different kind of superhero that greatly appealed to the psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s. In typical Marvel fashion, the timing of the good Doctor’s big-screen adaptation couldn’t be better, as the surrealist mysticism of Doctor Strange provides a much-needed tonic for the gritty realism of Marvel’s Netflix shows and the hyper-politicized Captain America: Civil War.
What’s more, VFX technology has advanced to the point where the kaleidoscopic iridescence of Ditko’s original artwork can actually be represented and even surpassed onscreen. With the 3D effects, you don’t merely watch Doctor Strange’s astral projection trip through the dazzling interdimensional cosmos — you experience it. Seriously, fork over the extra few bucks to see this movie in 3D, and you’ll get a preview of the inevitable Doctor Strange Disneyland ride.
Despite its otherworldly set pieces and plot points, Doctor Strange tells a familiar, down-to-Earth tale. People seek out the magic of the Mystic Arts when they’re at their lowest low, searching for physical and emotional healing after all other hope has been lost. Strange, of course, only seeks answers from the East after he has exhausted everything that Western medicine has to offer. (There are no atheists in foxholes, eh?)
Doctor Strange also grounds itself with an abundant wellspring of humor, doubtless thanks to some script doctoring (ahem) from comedy legend Dan Harmon. Wong enjoys a particularly amusing rapport with Strange, playing the straight man to Doctor Strange’s wisecracking egomania. “People used to think I was funny,” Strange mutters after a failed attempt to elicit a reaction from Wong. “Did that work for you?” Wong deadpans in reply.
Though Wong doesn’t have much to do in this film, his character is still a step up from the ethnically insulting “tea-serving manservant” he is in the comics, and it’ll be fun to watch his partnership with Strange unfold in future films. Strange’s relationship with Baron Mordo is featured more prominently, though he is not recognizable as the villain he is in the comics. Instead, the film uses their divergent personal philosophies in order to flesh out an intriguing character study of each.
And then we have Kaecilius. Unlike underdeveloped, prosthetic-heavy supervillains like Red Skull (Captain America: The First Avenger), Malekith (Thor: The Dark World) or Ronan the Accuser (Guardians of the Galaxy), Kaecilius is an antagonist with a sympathetic backstory, cogent motivations and philosophical speeches that even, however briefly, sway Stephen Strange himself. Plus, Mikkelson’s sparkly, cosmic eyeshadow is so on point.
And yet, as with other stellar Marvel movies — Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America: Civil War come to mind — the heroes themselves are their own worst enemies. With more hubris than all of the Greek warriors combined, Stephen Strange fits this bill a bit too well. The movie spares us no detail when it comes to depicting the depths of Strange’s deplorable narcissism. As a surgeon, Strange only took on cases that were “worth his time” — that is, cases that were just challenging enough to tickle his ego, but not risky enough to affect his success rate. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, even the piteous revelation that he can barely scribble his own name can’t make up for the venomous way in which he dismisses Christine Palmer.
Strange’s acquisition of mystical powers marks the beginning of his journey towards humility. As the storied Marvel saying goes: With great power comes great (ethical) responsibility. Or as the Ancient One tells Strange during a particularly poignant astral projection tête-à-tête: “You have such capacity for goodness.” Indeed, Doctor Strange’s climactic redemption is as spellbinding as it is satisfying. But of course, we know the magic is just getting started.