Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. A selfish arrogant genius gets into a life threatening accident that leaves him unable to live his life as he’d expected. Following the accident he discovers that he has access to a great power, but before he can use it properly, must undergo training. As he masters his new abilities he realizes that he should treat a woman in his life better and must defeat an enemy that represents what he would become should he use his new powers selfishly.
That Marvel is sticking to its formula for Doctor Strange shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Nor should they be surprised by another Marvel movie that feels more like a double-length pilot episode to a TV show rather than its own start-to-finish product. They also shouldn’t be surprised that over eight years of practice, Marvel has gotten really damn good at executing this formula. Doctor Strange is familiar, but it doesn’t really suffer for it. It’s a fun origin story for a fresh new face in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that also happens to be one of the most visually spectacular movies of the year.
To be a little more specific about the plot, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), is one of the world’s top neurosurgeons with an ego matching his skill. But after getting into a car accident that crushes his hands, leaving him unable to perform surgery, he journeys to Katmandu in search of the same cure that gave a fully paralyzed man the ability to walk again. Instead of a doctor, Strange discovers The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme, who inducts him into her school of the mystic and martial arts. As Strange learns how to cross distances and dimensions, astral project, and conjure energy weapons, he gets wrapped up in the Ancient One’s mission to protect Earth from an existential threat posed by one of her former students, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).
Unfortunately, Doctor Strange doesn’t give most of its amazing supporting cast much to do. As his character is culturally insensitive, Strange’s Asian manservant, Wong (Benedict Wong), instead becomes The Ancient One’s librarian, and exists mainly to be a stone-faced straight man for some of Strange’s jokes. Rachael McAdams plays Strange’s love interest, Christine Palmer, and doesn’t quite get enough time to become a Pepper Potts, much less a Peggy Carter. And Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo, another student of The Ancient One, will have way more to do in the sequel. And per Marvel tradition, Kaecilius is an underdeveloped villain who doesn’t even play a big role in the climax; but Mikkelsen is just a very entertaining actor to watch, as is everyone really.
While Cumberbatch is the star of the film, and admirably chases the crown of snark that Robert Downy Jr. currently wears; Tilda Swinton almost instantly becomes the most interesting thing on screen whenever she appears. It isn’t just that The Ancient One is the most powerful magic user in the movie, she completely earns her mystique and mystery in every scene. Swinton as The Ancient One has instant and complete control of every room she’s in.
What makes Doctor Strange worth watching for people who’ve already seen some of the Marvel movies but haven’t become die-hards are the movie’s tone and visual effects. Marvel movies have always been lighthearted, especially compared to the DC or X-Men stuff, but Doctor Strange goes straight up Loony Toons at times. There’s a scene where Strange uses portals to sneak past Wong that could’ve been done exactly the same with Bugs and Elmer Fudd. A major fight scene is briefly put on hold so the villain can play a short “who’s on first” with Strange’s name. At one point, Strange even gets into a fight with his cape (think Aladdin’s magic carpet) that results in something similar to a mime pushing against wind.
Also, I’ve joked about how similar Stephen Strange is to other Marvel characters, Tony Stark in particular, but there are some key differences. Strange might be Marvel’s first reluctant hero. Unlike Stark, he doesn’t immediately choose to use his powers for others. Unlike Rogers, he doesn’t want to join a war to protect the world. Also, where Tony Stark knows everything he needs to in order to save the world, and has to learn how to be a good person, Strange’s arc ties together his ability to let go of his ego to his powers. Strange is very much a student through the entire film, and his inherent strength isn’t that he’s smart, but that he’s able to learn. Also, as an actual doctor, Strange is strictly opposed to taking life, which I think is another Marvel first.
Furthermore, there is a lot to be read from how Doctor Strange concerns the idea of death, and rebirth if you’re into that sort of thing; especially during the climax, which, despite having the requisite evil sky portal, isn’t exactly the fight you might expect.
Speaking of the fight scenes, they are a spectacle, by far the most visually inventive and entertaining fights to come out of Marvel yet. The big set-pieces involve the mirror direction, where the wizards are able to warp and fold entire cities to their wills, fighting for control gravity and dimensionality. Each battlefield becomes a kaleidoscope, with each combatant fighting for control over which way they shift. This is in addition to glowing spell-circle blades, crackling energy whips, and martial arts. This applies outside of battle too, as characters step through sparking rings of energy that warp them across the globe and astral project themselves.
Doctor Strange’s most impressive visuals, however, comes from its visions of the Marvel universe’s other dimensions, where time and space is completely alien. If you remember the last act of Ant-Man, then you’ve already gotten a taste, but Doctor Strange takes it to eleven. A quick tour of the multiverse early in the film is pure eye-candy that perfectly recreates the weirdest and most spectacular settings from artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko’s comic pages in live action. It’s one of the first times that, as a comic book fan, I’ve felt like I’ve seen the best of Silver Age imagination being projected straight from page to screen. Doctor Strange is Marvel at its weirdest, and I hope that we see more of this sooner rather than later.
It’s hard not to feel like Doctor Strange is cinematic junk-food, even more-so than some other Marvel offerings. While there’s a solid enough narrative backbone supporting the movie, its advantage is in its mind-bending special effects, and it gets a definite boost from that feeling of “how is this guy gonna shake things up with Iron Man and Thor?” But, if Doctor Strange isn’t anything more than cinematic dessert, at least an intricately decorated cake rather than a spoonful of sugar.