The Marvel Cinematic Universe keeps expanding, seemingly showing no signs of stopping. Each new film brings us new heroes to fight new villains, new locations or planets filled with people to save, and new clashes and conflicts to bring characters together or drive them apart. But while Doctor Strange certainly continues the trend, it broadens the universe in entirely new ways, pushing not only the boundaries of superhero storytelling but of visual craftsmanship. It’s a mind-bending head trip of a film, which attempts to introduce a spiritual aspect to an otherwise science fiction series, all while serving up some of the most creative and exhilarating action sequences in recent memory. Doctor Strange may stick to the tried and true Marvel origin story formula, but it’s a fun ride anchored by a strong cast and impressive effects, and it offers an intriguing glimpse into the potential future of this ever-expanding Universe.
Stephen Strange is the best neurosurgeon on the planet, with hands so steady it seems like he can work magic within the damaged neurons of his patients, and who loves a good medical challenge. He’s also an asshole, supremely confident to the point of derisive cruelty towards his colleagues and lacking the ability to form meaningful relationships with those around him, gathering meaning only from hearing his praises sung and making heaps of money rather than the satisfaction of saving lives. He can’t be bothered with trivial ER work, desiring only to expand the frontier of what is medically possible, turning down cases of people who could help when their injuries don’t capture his imagination and stroke his ego. So it seems like karmic justice when Strange wrecks his expensive car and mangles the hands which are so crucial to his sense of self-worth, robbing him of the one thing that brought him purpose in life. He tries every experimental surgery he can find to try to return them to their former glory, slowly sinking in to a shell of despair and blocking out the only person who truly cares for him. Growing desperate and running low on funds after so many pricey procedures, Strange grasps at one last straw and travels to Nepal after learning of a man whose severed spinal cord was miraculously healed at the mysterious Kamar-Taj.
Instead of finding some new advance in medical science, Strange instead encounters a small, bald, monk-like figure known as the Ancient One, who sends Strange’s spirit on a journey through other dimensions and opens his mind to powers and abilities that completely contradict everything his scientific mind thought it knew. He begins to train in the temple along with other recruits, learning to channel energy from other dimensions to cast spells that conjure weapons or shields, or which can open portals allowing people to jump around the globe. As his abilities increase, he learns that the Ancient One and the master sorcerers protect the Earth from dangerous foes in other dimensions by guarding three sanctums around the world which combine to shield the planet, and that a former pupil named Kaecillius stole pages from a dark book and has dark plans in store. Strange, whose arrogance leads him to meddling with powers usually forbidden, finds himself thrown into the midst of a battle for Earth’s very future against forces far grander and more terrifying than he could have ever imagined.
Benedict Cumberbatch makes an excellent Stephen Strange, giving the arrogant doctor a sarcastic edge and really conveying his spiritual brokenness following his fateful accident. He’s fully committed to the occasionally downright weird side of the film, helping the more outlandish visuals feel grounded, and he brings a surprising sense of humor to the proceedings. Tilda Swinton is perfectly cast as the Ancient One if you can overlook the potential whitewashing of turning a Tibetan monk character from the comics into a white Celtic woman (supposedly done in order to avoid reinforcing racial stereotypes). Swinton is just the right actress to knock Strange’s egotistical ass down a few pegs, systematically deconstructing all he thought he knew while helping him to open himself to new experiences and wisdom, all with an unforgiving comic sharpness. The rest of the cast are equally solid, including Chiwetel Ejiofor as the straight-laced student Mordo who tries to rein in Strange’s ambition, Benedict Wong as Kamal-Taj’s no-nonsense librarian, and an underused Rachel McAdams as a fellow doctor with whom Strange has a romantic past. Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecillius unfortunately suffers from the recurring issue of somewhat bland villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, although he brings gravitas to the role and has some good moments.
Doctor Strange may not reinvent the superhero origin story, but it does open up a new world of visual treats with surprises and jaw-dropping moments around every corner. The Ancient One and Kaecillius have the ability to fold the world around them, bending not only rooms and hallways but roads, buildings, and entire city blocks to their will, playing with gravity and creating some of the most inventive action sequences in recent memory. The magic spells of the sorcerers have a kaleidoscopic, twisting style that feels utterly unique, leaps and bounds ahead of something like Inception. But even the smaller moments have unique visual flair, whether the crackling energy of magic whips, crystalline blades conjured from thin air, or the colorful sigils used by the characters to access their magic powers. Writer-director Scott Derrickson has a great eye for the visual world of Doctor Strange, but also a surprising talent for comedy, with several great gags, many of which involve Strange’s sentient Cloak of Levitation, which often has its own ideas of what Strange should be doing.
But while I don’t have any major complaints about Doctor Strange, I couldn’t help being a little frustrated by it. I don’t think I’m suffering from superhero fatigue, Marvel fatigue, or shared universe fatigue, but I couldn’t help being a little disappointed in this. Marvel should be commended for taking risks with the stories they’re telling, and each question of “could this possibly work?” has been answered with a resounding “yes!” thus far. They’ve made successful films around Norse gods, frozen soldiers, shrinking men, bizarre aliens, and now the Sorcerer Supreme, and managed to fit them all together in a way that makes both logical sense and which feels right. With each new character added into the fold it feels like Marvel and producer Kevin Feige are trying to see how far they can push the envelope and what sort of outrageous story they can get away with. But I feel like they’ve underestimated the audience’s ability to suspend their belief and just go with it, while sadly refusing to take risks that would be more meaningful and more rewarding. I really enjoyed Doctor Strange, yet I found myself let down by the fact that 14 films into the MCU we’re still only getting stories about straight, white men who find out that they’re extraordinary. Sure, there have been great characters throughout the MCU who are women or minorities, but we’re still a year and a half away from any of them actually getting their own film (2018’s Black Panther). Marvel should concern itself more with pushing the boundaries of inclusivity rather than those of what sort of setting or plotline the audience will accept, and telling a wider range of stories that will appear to a wider variety of human experiences rather than simply giving us a wider range of superpowers.
Still, none of those issues are specifically this movie’s fault, and it would be unfair of me to criticize the film itself because of my frustrations with decisions made at the studio level affecting many films. Doctor Strange is another solid entry in the Marvel canon, one which holds a lot of promise to enrich its shared universe going forward. Its story may on occasion be a little bland, lacking the narrative character of Ant-Man or Guardians of the Galaxy, it makes up for that with mind-blowing visuals and a rich mystical world anchored by a strong cast. I’m especially curious to see how Strange will mesh with the Avengers once they inevitably join forces down the line. I may be more excited about upcoming MCU films like Black Panther or Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, but that doesn’t make Doctor Strange unworthy for inclusion with the rest of the series. It’s a fun, exciting ride, with a good helping of humor and a clever, unconventional ending that sets it apart from most other superhero films. I might have preferred a Marvel movie about a black, lesbian superhero instead of another rich, straight, white guy, but that shouldn’t take away from the film we were given. Marvel hasn’t delivered a failure yet, I’ll just have to look forward to the day they turn their immense talents towards something more diverse in the years to come.
(As a final note, I rarely see films in 3D anymore, and never recommend it, but I’m going to break that here. You know your own tolerance for 3D, but if you’re at all inclined I highly recommend seeing Doctor Strange in 3D. It’s a visual treat, and its impressive effects really pop when given depth. Most films that are converted to 3D rather than filmed in 3D, tend to be rubbish and painful to watch, but Doctor Strange is definitely worth the higher ticket price if you think there’s a chance you might enjoy it. Regardless, it’s worth seeing on the big screen rather than waiting to watch it at home.)