Doctor Strange is a paint-by-the-numbers origin story, but director Scott Derrickson, whose work includes The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister, paints it with confident strokes and in bright neon colors.
Make no mistake, this is not the film Feige promised years ago. First, we were told it would NOT be another origin story. It is. Then we were told that – in the vein of Marvel’s genre-hopping, ala Winter Soldier and espionage and Ant-Man as heist film – Strange would mark Marvel’s foray into horror/suspense genre. Neither are traits of the film (the 2007 animated origin story released on DVD is more frightening). But while that Doctor Strange that isn’t might be a lost opportunity, Marvel’s 14th entry into MCU is still good.
And I don’t mean that in the sense that it’s simply NOT a fundamentally broken mess like Suicide Squad or the Fantastic 4 reboot. And I don’t mean it’s just another passable popcorn piece – comparing it to the disconcertingly similar 2011 Green Lantern film highlights Strange’s superb execution of familiar conventions. Indeed, this is a true-to-form origin story that maximizes characters, humor, and spectacle, despite suffering some familiar weaknesses.
The premise is an all-too familiar one. Dr Stephen Strange is the Tony Stark of medicine (like House, but without the drug problem). He’s an unflinchingly capable neurosurgeon, a brilliant physician, and a condescending jerk who fails to appreciate human life, seeing people as puzzles to be solved so he can further his reputation, not lives to be saved. In short, he makes for an ideal case study of the character transformation towards which these films seem drawn. His hubris catches up with him when texting-while-driving results in a brutal car crash, crippling Strange’s hands, the means by which he made his name.
Of course, Strange copes not by recognizing and moving beyond the faults in his character, but doubling down on them. He projects his disappointment and pain onto the world of less-capable laymen trying to help him, from fellow surgeons to his ER companion and once-lover Christine Palmer, his altruistic foil. He rejects meaning beyond a cynical reality, asserting that like everyone else, he’s just a “speck in an otherwise indifferent universe.”
When western medicine fails him, leaving him broke and desperate, Strange follows a rumor of more mystical healing to Kathmandu. There he meets the robe-wearing Mordo and the Ancient One, and despite initial reservations and difficulties, Strange soon finds himself a student of magic, and a gifted one at that. But before too long, a case of wrong-place-wrong-time casts him into a battle to – you guessed it – save all of humanity from principal antagonist Kaecilius, an ex-pupil of the Ancient One who seeks to “free the world” from the insults to life that are time, death, and decay by summoning Dormammu, an interdimensional entity who seeks to engulf all life into his timeless domain, the “Dark Dimension.”
It’s familiar, sure, but there is unmistakable charm in this familiarity. While Derrickson saddles his characters with loads of exposition, talking about relics, dimensions, sanctums, and natural law, he and fellow writers Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill – along with an all too-competent cast – do so in a way that gives those characters a fullness of form unseen in other installments.
From Palmer’s selflessness to Mordo’s black-and-white conviction, and from the Ancient One’s bending of the rules to Kaecilius’ well-intended but coldly utilitarian dismissal of those same rules, the characters provide a framework of ideas Strange must navigate on his way to heroism.
But while successfully giving the supporting cast a degree of depth, this conversation of ideas doesn’t completely translate to the film’s action or Strange’s character arc like it could. Strange develops as a magician first out of necessity, then all-too-suddenly out of natural ability, with little connection to the navigation of the ideologies just described. “You are meant for this,” Modo suggests, inflating Strange’s ego but leaving viewers wanting. Despite being a film about transition into belief in more spiritual realities, it does little to explain Strange’s inner quest.
This is emphasized when the film rushes into its third act, forcing Stange’s transformation from selfish arrogance to altruistic and self-sacrificing because, well, the Ancient One gives him a stern talking to, suggesting that Strange’s focus on not failing provides momentary success but keeps him from greatness that stems from succeeding on behalf of others, not himself. When the climax – as interesting as it is – has Strange suffering a groundhog day of death for the sake of humanity, it seems odd. When did this Strange show up?
One can’t help but think the underused Rachel McAdams as Dr. Palmer could have done more to make apparent this transition. Her natural kindness surely catalyzed Strange’s transformation, suggested briefly in a scene where she leaves his embrace to care for a patient, but there’s not enough depicted for the effect to resonate beyond the credits. Likewise, Strange’s sacrifice could stem from a sense of indebtedness to or inspiration by the Ancient One, but – again – such seeds barely get the time sprout, much less bloom. Whether that’s a directorial misstep or time management choice, the lack feels inconsistent.
But these are expected nitpicks for a blockbuster that must introduce heroes, explain villains, establish a world and its rules, and detail a coherent narrative arc, all while continuously flexing its budgetary muscles with spectacular set pieces.
And spectacular they are.
The film is unmistakably beautiful, both in its action and it’s slower, more imaginative moments. One in particular in which we see a flash of lighting slowly spiderweb on the horizon while characters share a conversation is a particular standout. The color palette ranges from earthy darks in the real world to striking neons where magic is involved, creating an inner consistency of transition and emphasizing the visual appeal of the mystical practices.
Make no mistake – despite much mentioning in the media, Inception this is not. A much closer analog might be Kingdom Hearts, what with shifting environments and ridiculous weapons appearing from nowhere to be used in theaters that refuse to obey the laws of physics. From small-scale hallway skirmishes to city-wide arenas, landscapes flow and detach. Gravity shifts. Capes catch knives and slam heads into tables. As for the ‘sorcery,’ there is a single incantation here, but most magic is simply a series of hand motions to summon one instrument or another. Characters fabricate shields, whips and swords of magical energy with which they do battle in some of Marvel’s best, high-energy, hand-to-hand combat scenes, a clear distinction from the swashbuckling-gunfights seen in the Harry Potter films.
That said, there’s an unfortunate lack of creativity in the magic wielding. Defaulting to crude weaponry and fisticuffs robs the film and its viewers of Strange’s more creative spell weaving seen in comics, something the creators could have employed to explain Strange’s rapidly established proficiency. Something as simple as the Blink sequences in X-Men: Days of Future Past could have added significantly to our believing that Strange could so quickly rank among magical masters by way of unconventional thinking. Only in the rather inventive climax does Strange’s daring and brilliance overcome the magical mastery of his foes – everything else seemed lucky at best.
In this regard, Benedict Cumberbatch bears much weight as Doctor Strange, lending the character a believably irreverent confidence. Likewise, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, and Mads Mikkelsen more than deliver in their supporting roles. McAdams maintains her natural affability, giving us perhaps the best Marvel love-interest yet (the validity of such a trope to be discussed elsewhere). Wong’s gravitas clashes well with Strange’s defiance and pays off in spades towards the film’s end. Mikkelsen is tragically underused, as so many villains are, but that doesn’t stop him from lending his naturally imposing nature to the character, endowing him with weighted movements and verbal rigidity that solidify the character’s badguy nature without much other explanation. The brilliant Ejiofor plays Mordo’s conflicted nature with such pathos that one can’t help but hope for him to take the throne as Marvel’s best villain in future installments.
But it’s the controversial casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One that proved to be the film’s best decision. Swinton steals every scene, negating potential old-Asian mentor tropes with a balance of detached severity and compassion. Swinton’s control of every nod, smile, or blink makes us believe she is a centuries-old master. Whether this casting cheats the Asian demographic or makes Marvel guilty of whitewashing is a debate for elsewhere – Swinton is what we got, and she’s great.
It all adds up to a film consistent in tone, unique and creative in visuals, and interesting – if not conclusive – in its ideas. And it’s hilarious. Probably one of Marvel’s funniest, reliant on simple slapstick and visual gags in addition to character beats. The Cape of Levitation, essentially Carpet from Aladdin, plays no small role in this humor.
Is it Marvel’s best? Probably not, but it easily ranks towards the top of the list. Is it a great way to start off the fall season of blockbusters? Indeed it is. Go see it.
If you’re in the Monroe, Mi area, make an effort to experience it in the new Encore theater – it’s all too worth it.
About the Author:
Travis Trombley is a high school English teacher who studies how superheros intersect with social, political and personal narratives. He and his wife Emily created HeroMonitor as a dedicated place where participants can engage in discussion about superheroes and other popular stories in terms of function – what they say about our anxieties, ideals, hopes and understandings of the world – without the messiness of fan predictions or clutter of trivial argument.