Appropriately named, Doctor Strange is an oddity. In the comic books, he is the most powerful practitioner of magic on Earth, frequently travelling to other dimensions and planes of existence other characters aren’t aware of. Various movie studios have been trying to make a movie based on him since the mid 80s, far before there was ever an MCU. While the very fabric of the MCU has been rooted in plausibility, Doctor Strange’s adventures tend to veer towards the irrational, mystic, and extra-dimensional. Adding him to this world means finding a place in this rational universe for a litany of extra crazy ideas, and finding a way to make them palatable for mainstream audiences. Doctor Strange’s deep end craziness cannot threaten the established integrity of the MCU.
Just like Ant-Man this movie is a genuine origin story, showing Strange’s journey from a conceited neurosurgeon whose hands get mangled in a car accident, to mastering the “mystic arts”; the MCU’s version of magic. One of the few unwritten rules in the MCU is that there is no true magic, so the filmmakers declare that sorcerers draw their power from other dimensions. This explanation feels just deep enough to allow people to not think about it, but it does seed the ground for the definitively comic-book idea of the “multiverse”, a seemingly infinite number of alternate universes that is most frequently used to introduce alternate versions of known characters. While the sorcerers take themselves very seriously, co-opting the stylings of vague asian mysticism and the solemnity that goes with it, the movie doesn’t let that get in the way of the fun we expect from an MCU movie; provided here in the form of jokes and jaw dropping visuals. This movie is a feast for the eyes, best enjoyed on the largest possible screen you have access to. The visuals are the primary method they use to drop these crazy-ass concepts on us, making the most outlandish sights full of meaning and importance. From the first scene, this movie is eager to show off the strength of its visuals, borrowing from Inception and The Matrix to take reality-bending to new heights. Incredible visuals collide with the multiverse concept when Strange meets The Ancient One, the current sorcerer supreme who teaches and leads a group of sorcerers, and as a means of shattering Strange’s limited worldview, sends him crashing through the most batshit insane sequence ever included in a comic book movie, which the filmmakers dubbed the “Magical Mystery Tour:”
The casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One became a point of contention since the character is depicted in the comics as an old asian man. Personally, I find it funny that Marvel’s attempt at dodging a racist asian stereotype drew claims of Hollywood whitewashing. I don’t think there is another actor on the planet capable of appearing as peculiar as a bald Tilda Swinton, looking like an albino lizard. To compound the weird face quotient, the title role of Doctor Strange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, doing his best American accent while trying not to sound too much like Dr. House. He is an arrogant genius who wisecracks his way through a journey of self discovery while developing a new power, and if you think that sounds a bit like Tony Stark, you’re definitely not the first. But where Stark is supremely intelligent, Strange is instead very talented and that makes him somehow more arrogant than Stark. That might lead you to think this story would head towards Strange learning humility, but his ego is only broken down enough to get over his self pity from his damaged hands, and then his preternatural talent with the mystic arts builds his ego back up. Doctor Strange is not supposed to be humble, he is supposed to be the most powerful sorcerer on Earth, charged with protecting the entire planet from mystical threats. Hopefully, on his journey to becoming that, which is not reached by the end of this movie, he will learn the Ancient One’s final lesson: “It’s not about you.”
Sorcerers existed long before the Avengers formed, and just like Ant-Man did, this movie has to justify why no one knows about them. Most of the action in this movie takes place in other dimensions or otherwise removed completely from public view. The climax, which has the entire planet and perhaps even the entire universe being consumed by an entity from another dimension is simply rewound by Strange through the use of time manipulation made possible by an artifact called The Eye of Agamotto, another Infinity Stone in hiding. It’s a refreshing change from the usual punchy-kicky method of problem solving in the MCU to see Strange using his intellect and newfound skills to trick the big bad into leaving on his own. But given that it’s such an important part of the plot, it’s a little surprising to find that this movie, and by extension the MCU, does not really take a strong stance on the causality of time. They give indications of both uncertainty and fatalism in the future, but mostly leave the question unasked and unanswered.
This movie unfolds slowly because it has a lot to introduce. Much like Ant-Man there is an adherence to a more traditional comic book movie structure, and likewise, this makes it feel more like a Phase 1 movie. There is a lot this movie does better than others, mainly the introduction of the multiverse, and visuals unparalleled not just within the MCU, but anywhere in cinema. Unfortunately, those highlights don’t affect the narrative in any meaningful way and the story we are left with is just average. This is a perfectly serviceable Marvel movie; fun, funny, interesting, and exciting. But the experience contained within the confines of the actual run time is not as exciting as the possibilities these concepts and characters bring with them. I’d love to see where they go from here. 3/5
Coming up next: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)