Look, on its most basic level, Doctor Strange isn’t that much of a deviation from the origin story formula, nor from the Marvel formula. As an origin story, it’s another permutation of the thousand faced hero that we’ve told time and time again. As a Marvel film, it’s another character-based quippy action picture with a villain that could have had more potential and a sprinkling of references that indicate an eye pointed towards the future.
Mephisto the devil is in the details. While we’re given a rather conventional picture on the surface, what makes Doctor Strange so uniquely charming and fun is the little twists, the way it fills out the Marvel Studios mad-lib.
If you’ve seen Iron Man, this one should be more familiar to you than not, to a point. Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is outstanding in his field (surgeon) and completely arrogant because of it. After a terrible accident (car wreck), he would do anything to heal and return to his old life.
And here’s the point. Strange goes to Nepal after meeting a man (Benjamin Bratt) who says he was made able to walk again. In Nepal, Strange meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a powerful sorcerer who seeks to open Strange’s mind and expand his world. Under her and the tutelage of Master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Strange will grow in his powers and in good time too, as the rogue sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) seeks to summon an ancient evil into our world.
So, yeah. Arrogant man unlocks new potential and learns to become a hero. For those of you seeking narrative innovation, don’t look to find it here. It’s a twist, sure, but fundamentally Doctor Strange is Iron Man, writ again to prep for a world in which Robert Downey Jr. no longer dons the suit. Cynical possibly, but understanding Marvel Studios is to understand that they are a perpetual machine, one with constant contingency in place.
On the other hand, let’s not dwell so much on how alike this film is, as the ways in which this film has chosen to diverge are deeply fascinating and well worth all but the most hardened studio skeptic’s time.
First and foremost is that Doctor Strange is perhaps the first Marvel Studios film with an actual attempt to push its aesthetics. An attempt is not entirely accurate, because this film soars doing it. Lush location shooting makes you realize how many office buildings and hallways recent productions have taken place in. The film has an actual score with personality that actually underlines the action (Thanks Michael Giacchino!).
But most importantly is the visual effects that prove that there are still ways for blockbuster films to dazzle us. While trailers make it look Inception with superpowers, the actual thing is more Inception that one time your friend dared you to watch it on LSD (Fuck you, Dave). Doctor Strange keeps the source material’s psychedelia close to heart and knows how to turn it into some truly impressive action sequences. Our sorcerers are able to alter reality around them (thanks to a conceit the film has called the Mirror Dimension) and battle just as much with the environments around them as they do spellcasting and martial arts.
From a New York battle that’s fought as the entire city is ripped apart and altered at will, the camera constantly kaleidoscoping around reality falling apart, to a battle in Hong Kong fought as the environment around them is engaged in backwards time travel, to a grappling match between astral forms, Doctor Strange is really getting creative with what it’s able to do. Director Scott Derrickson would wow enough just by the virtue of him thinking of these sequences, but we’ve got to up the kudos for how clear and easy to follow this mind-bending insanity really is.
Derrickson (along with writers Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill, and late-game punch-up artist Dan Harmon) must also be credited for taking Doctor Strange thematic places these films haven’t necessarily gone. For a universe so intensely devoted to scientific explanations, Doctor Strange is a movie about faith and the power of belief. Strange is giving himself over to something larger than himself, to sublimating his arrogance for the power of something higher.
It’s also a film about a man who refuses to do harm. I think about this in opposition to the Iron Man franchise, a series which was born out of post-9/11 willingness to kill the enemy. Strange kills one man over the course of the film, and it tears away at him, in conflict with Mordo who is willing to do anything necessary to protect the world. Strange wants to find a better way, and he does, resolving the conflict with shades of the best solutions of Captain Kirk or The Doctor. There’s something I love about that, about the film’s willingness to embrace a hero unwilling to do harm and so devoted to helping others, at the ultimate denial of his self.
In a way, Doctor Strange is a film for the nerds. I know, I know. We’ve had a whole bunch of superheroes talking about Infinity Gems and people with “Name the Descriptor” titles. But there’s a certain fantasy in those stories, something powerful and militaristic, the solution ultimately violent. Strange defeats his powers through knowledge. He’s not a slick guy, on the contrary, he’s kind of awkward interacting with the world around him. But it’s a fundamental belief in good and his willingness to use his brain and think through his solutions that allows him to win. If Captain America and Iron Man are nerd fantasies of what they want to become, Doctor Strange is what it could be for a nerd to actually be a superhero.
Which is why you put Benedict Cumberbatch in the role, and why he acquits himself so admirably. I do really like him, he gets a more human side of Strange than one might expect. Less Sherlock, more…Stephen Strange. He plays the character as a flawed sort of intelligent, quick to pick up but very much learning. He’s charismatic, but clearly not when you look up close, interacting in just the wrong ways when he gets personal, learning how to overcome that. He’s relatable in a major way and he really sells the actual big-ass fantasy stuff well. If Marvel’s goal is to set up one of their next group of main heroes, mission accomplished.
He’s surrounded with a group of highly competent actors, all served to varying degrees. On the low end of the spectrum is Rachel McAdams as love interest-ish Christine Palmer. She’s fine, but the story does her no favors, and she’s largely there as a tool rather than a character. Towards the middle is Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius, who gets some strong shading, but little else as he seems to end up around a more understandable version of Ronan the Accuser, a heretic and zealot of the same faith as Strange rather than an ill-defined terrorist.
And on the upper end is our Tibetan School for Psychedelics and Wizardry (not really, but basically) supporting cast. Eijofor acquits himself admirably as the troubled and rigid Master Mordo, a true believer who has his faith tested. Benedict Wong continues to be a favorite supporting actor as Wong, giving the film a rock-solid grounding and good-natured humor (Not that the film needs much more humor, this may surprisingly be one of the films more undermined by its comedic beats). And Swinton is truly great as the Ancient One, managing to give the old mentor role more complexity than anyone has since Alec Guinness.
To some degree, I’m willing to admit there’s a bump this film gets because I’m the one watching it. I’m a longtime fan of Doctor Strange (Triumph and Torment and The Oath. Read them) and a film willing to wear its geeky influences on its sleeve, all Pink Floyd and pulpy sword and sorcery novels and old public television sci-fi adventure shows, is gonna be practically made for me.
If you’re absolutely sick to death of Marvel Studios and absolutely unwilling to ever sit through another, this may not be the one to convince you. Whatever, you do you. But for any degree up from there, from the superhero skeptic to the dyed-in-the-wool-die-hard, there’s a lot to love and admire here. From its bonkers visual psychedelia to some surprisingly close-to-home thematics, Doctor Strange shows there’s still ways to inject a whole lot of life into the same ol’ same ol’.
P.S. If you’re willing to see it in 3D, it’s worth it.