“Be careful which path you travel down, Strange. Stronger men than you have lost their way.”
14 films in and 8 years later, the Marvel Universe is still going from strength to strength, with even the most ‘out there’ characters getting brilliant and successful film adaptations (Ant Man, Guardians of the Galaxy). Now comes the turn of the Sorcerer Supreme; Doctor Strange, a character once read exclusively by stoner college students. Despite a strong backlog of his own comics and other appearances in Marvel properties, Doctor Strange has always been just a little too weird for mainstream appeal. But now he’s got his very own blockbuster and pretty soon he’ll be among the big names in Infinity War. Thank God then that this year’s Doctor Strange is yet another brilliant addition to the Marvel canon. Tighter than most films in the MCU (clocking in at under 2 hours) and one of the funniest too, Doctor Strange also provides us with some of the best visuals in the entire Marvel cinematic universe.
After seriously injuring his hands in a car accident, the once rich and arrogant surgeon Dr Stephen Strange is forced out of the medical profession while simultaneously trying everything to fix his damaged digits, no matter the cost. After Western medicine fails him he resorts to Eastern Spiritualism, which leads him to Kathmandu in Nepal where he finds Kamar-Taj; the temple of the Ancient One. He hopes to heal his hands but after the Ancient One reveals her powers to him, transporting him through different dimensions and across the the astral plane, he begs her to train him. Despite early reservations about his ego and arrogance (and him reminding her of Kaecilius, a previous student gone rogue) she gives in and begins to train Strange. Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange is straight away one of the all time great Marvel characters, as instantly watchable and enjoyable as Robert Downey Jr. was in his debut. The supporting cast are frequently brilliant too, consisting mainly of critically renowned stars like Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, and Mads Mikkelsen. Chiwetel Ejiofor is great as fellow sorcerer Mordo whose talent in the mystic arts make him Strange’s friend and equal. Anyone familiar with the comics knows Mordo will no doubt pop back up, and his relationship with Strange will be considerably different. Ejiofor plays this wonderfully, with his stoic strong mindedness being at first helpful, but later becoming something to oppose. He’s a little underused, but this film is more about sowing the seeds of his later appearances rather than featuring him massively now. Rachel McAdams is great as Strange’s work colleague and one time girlfriend Christine Palmer; a capable doctor who saves Stephen’s life at least once. Hopefully she won’t be left to the side like previous superhero love interests (Natalie Portman’s Jane) because she’s a lot of fun. It’ll be interesting to see if she becomes her comic book alter-ego Night Nurse in subsequent films, as Rosario Dawson has pretty much taken that role in the Marvel Netflix shows.
Mads Mikkelsen gets a little bit of the Marvel villain treatment (being slightly underdeveloped) but he still makes a very compelling villain, and is better than most Marvel baddies. Kaecilius doesn’t see him self as bad guy, a common enough trope, but handled wonderfully by Mikkelsen. The scene where he explains to Strange why he’s doing what he’s doing is wonderful. He believes in it so much it’s hard not to believe in it a little yourself. And it’s Mads freakin’ Mikkelsen; the man could read the phone book and we’d all be enthralled. Benedict Wong pops up as, funnily enough a sorcerer named Wong. The comics had Wong in the stereotypical ‘Asian man-servant to a white master who also knows kung-fu’ role (look it up, it’s surprisingly prevalent) but the film eschews that for a much more interesting role as Kamar-Taj’ss bad ass librarian. Wong’s interaction with Strange is frequently hilarious and he seems a character with a lot more potential (so it’s great news that he’ll be appearing in Infinity War). The real scene stealer though is the Ancient One herself; Tilda Swinton. An old Asian man in the comics, the Ancient One is now a white woman with Celtic origins. A lot of people called Marvel out over this, claiming the film was ‘whitewashing’ characters, but they’re wrong. An older Asian actor in this role (early rumours suggested Ken Wantanabe) would have been entirely predictable and perhaps even a little racist. Casting Tilda Swinton as the androgynous sorcerer supreme not only means the best and most powerful character in the film is a woman, it also adds to to the mysticism without relying on the outdated ‘East = magic’ trope (something the Doctor Strange universe is already full of). And let’s be honest, if the Ancient One was an old Asian Man those same people would have complained about that too. Tilda Swinton is awesome as always and makes the role feel totally unique. A key conversation she has with Strange while both are in their astral form looking over the bay of New York (it makes sense in the film) is probably the best and most affecting conversations anyone in the MCU has had.
The ‘arrogant playboy humbled by injury’ story may be identical to Tony Stark’s journey in Iron Man but Doctor Strange does more than enough to differentiate itself from previous origin stories. Visually the film is on a completely different level to previous entries in the MCU, fully embracing the Steve Ditko imagery that captured the hearts of college stoners all those years ago. Director Scott Derrickson does an excellent job and manages to effortlessly capture everything going on, even when the imagery is at it’s most mind bending. When Strange is first shown the power wielded by the Ancient One Strange is sent on an indescribable trip full of kaleidoscopic imagery and droste effects; more Pink Floyd album art than traditional MCU superhero imagery. And the M.C. Escher style imagery only continues into the action scenes. The sorcerers have the power to bend the fabric of reality in certain dimensions so we see buildings folding over themselves (Inception style) and fight scenes on morphing pieces of New York architecture. It’s very cool and sets the film apart from all other superhero films. The film also doesn’t suffer from being bloated, a common problem in the genre. The film clocks in at under two hours and it’s a much leaner film than most Marvel properties, despite the multiple dimensions and locations. As with other Marvel movies Doctor Strange is also very funny, but Doctor Strange manages to balance that out with some lofty talk about things like death and the consequences of living forever. It’s a compelling argument either way you look at it and you might actually side find yourself siding with Kaecilius occasionally. Strange is of course right in the end (he’s not the one summoning the earth ending entity after all) but it’s a good touch and fitting of the post Civil War universe where nobody is 100 percent right.
The bottom line: Doctor Strange is perhaps Marvel’s most unique film after Guardians of the Galaxy. Like Guardians it fits into the MCU but opens up so many possibilities for the future of the shared universe. The story is formulaic but it’s handled very well and the script and direction both shine. The cast are all uniformly excellent and Cumberbatch’s performance as Strange is up there with Robert Downey Jr’s as the best of the MCU. The real star though are the Ditko-inspired visuals which help illustrate the completely new world the MCU has now entered. How the more grounded characters like Iron Man and Captain America will interact with this world is a mystery right now, but with Marvel I’m sure it’ll be brilliant.