In my comic-collecting childhood, I thought Dr. Strange was okay. He’s had occasional memorable stories from talented writers and artists such as Roger Stern, Peter B. Gillis, Michael Golden, Marshall Rogers, Paul Smith, Chris Warner, Chris Claremont, Gene Colan, Brian K. Vaughan, Mark Waid, and so on. The current run by Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo isn’t bad and looks stupendous. The original stories by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko were okay, but never left the same impression on me that their three-year Amazing Spider-Man collaboration did. Doc has never exactly been an all-time Top 5 hero for me. I bought his series on and off, skipping entire years and runs. I don’t mind him, but I didn’t have to have a movie about him.
It’s a good thing Marvel didn’t ask me for my opinion before arranging for Benedict Cumberbatch and director Scott Derrickson to turn Doctor Strange into such a profound panoply of prismatic panoramas. I mean, I still cling to hope of one day buying opening-day passes for Squirrel Girl: The Motion Picture or maybe a Mary Jane solo movie, but I’m okay with the Master of the Mystic Arts going first. I guess.
Short version for the unfamiliar: The origin has been fully preserved: Dr. Stephen Strange is one of the country’s top surgeons, with a planet-sized ego and the standard occupational rage if you dare call him anything but “Doctor”, until a fateful car accident shatters both his specifically talented hands, effectively ending his precious career. Rather than settling for living off a disability insurance claim or suing his sportscar manufacturer on fraudulent grounds, Strange uses up his wealth undertaking a fruitless quest to undo the damage and get his old job back.
When all of the modern world’s possibilities lead to dead ends, he finds himself led to a spiritual retreat in the Himalayas, where he switches career tracks through the guidance of The Ancient One, who’s like an ancestor of Yoda replete with vast powers and bizarre, oblique methods in place of straightforward classroom lessons. In the comics, the Ancient One was a stereotypical wizened Asian who could’ve been selling Mogwai on the side and looking forward to someday meeting Kurt Russell. Here the character is now written and overtly labeled as a non-Asian woman, who’s played by a relatively restrained Tilda Swinton. Frankly, she’s done weirder.
School’s over for the Sorcerer Supreme’s apprentice when evil rears its ugly head in the form of Kaecilius, a murderous, single-minded wizard who wants power and immortality in the classic comic-book villain traditions. Hannibal‘s Mads Mikkelsen seems overqualified to play a glorified Death-Eater, but he does get one smashing speech about why he thinks he’s not really Evil and why Strange should be careful who he trusts.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: As in the original origin from Strange Tales #115, the Ancient One has another pupil named Mordo. Unlike in that story, here he’s black and not prepared to betray his sensei within minutes of Strange’s enrollment. Chiwetel Ejiofor becomes Our Hero’s serious-minded peer and ally, and enjoys his first chance for all-out martial-arts action since Serenity. Strange’s stereotypical manservant Wong (Benedict Wong from Interstellar) has been upgraded to an older, gruffer peer in charge of the Ancient One Academy library.
The supporting cast includes Michael Stuhlbarg (star of the Coen Bros’ overlooked A Serious Man) as a surgeon who’s okay, not great in his field; and Law & Order‘s Benjamin Bratt as a former student. The Kaecilius henchman who lasts the longest is Scott Adkins, who last appeared in the Marvel universe as the silent, transmogrified Deadpool near the end of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The mandatory Stan Lee cameo is a bus passenger reading up on some Aldous Huxley.
Also, Academy Award Nominee Rachel McAdams is the Concerned Female Friend, subbing for Rosario Dawson as team medic.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Lessons taught here include:
* This superficial, visible life is not the only world around.
* Egotism and murder are bad.
* Friends are necessary.
* With great power comes great responsibility. (WELL, IT DOES.)
* Martial arts can’t solve every conflict. Harsh negotiations are also an option.
* Some people think it’s fun guessing what year a pop song was released. (My son was apparently unaware of this.)
Later in the film, much discussion is had as to whether breaking rules is a cardinal sin or a necessary evil. Strange, as you’d expect from a Marvel hero, believes sometimes compromises are the only way through, regardless of potential side effects in the space-time continuum. Mordo lives by-the-book and gets offended at any idea otherwise, embracing a strictly black-and-white worldview and becoming the film’s living embodiment of creator Steve Ditko.
Beyond the life lessons, Doctor Strange is a visual extravaganza that remixes the cityscape deconstructions of Inception, Dark City, and The Matrix into a fluid, topsy-turvy battleground of tilting precipices, fractal patterns, Lego swapping, and Escher fever dreams, using all of Lower Manhattan as its raw materials. Forays into other dimensions and expressions of space-time yield still more kaleidoscopic results. (This might be mind-blowing in 3-D assuming they filmed it that way rather than upconverting from 2-D. I wouldn’t know.)
Nitpicking? The sorcerers’ duels of the old comics — expressed in a combination of four-color hand-lasers and mystic doggerel recitations — are reimagined for a 21st-century super-hero audience as magical kung-fu, with weapons made from eldritch energy and wire stunts intentionally defying reality. Magic takes on other forms in select instances, but mostly it’s used as a fancy way to punch, kick, and stab. Cumberbatch brings Strange’s hand-waving to the big screen in full force, but I was disappointed that his trademark bloated incantations were among the few elements left behind.
The “plot” is basic super-hero origin framework. That trait is largely inescapable whenever a new super-hero series is launched. If you’re insisting on something radically different, maybe avoid the first film in every super-hero series ever? Hey, Arrival opens next week and is reportedly the greatest thing since the invention of bread, so there’s an option. It even has super-hero actors in it and stuff.
Many thinkpieces using the word “problematic” have been written over the past year about the “whitewashing” of the Ancient One, i.e. the casting of one minority with a different minority. I feel as a white guy that there’s no way I can successfully continue this paragraph without someone wanting to set me on fire, so I’m just noting it for the record in case you missed all the outrage. I would only add that, in a better timeline in which he lived to this day, the Ancient One could’ve been a fantastic role for a 76-year-old Bruce Lee.
If you’re from a family that’s not too keen on witchcraft in your entertainment and even skipped the Harry Potter series for that exact reason, it’s worth noting the film studiously avoids wands, cauldrons, pentagrams, and any overtly occult symbols, in case you’re conflicted about your up-to-now unabashed Marvel movie fandom. They still have spells and spellbooks, so…it’s your call to make.
So what’s to like? I’m a sucker for hyperverbal characters and will show up nearly anytime Cumberbatch wants to play another one. Strange is no mere rehash of Sherlock with his stentorian American accent, evolving as he does from acerbic rich diva to ennobled hero with the weight of the universe on his shoulders. The cast matches him as much as they’re allowed to within their comparatively fewer scenes, each of them a powerhouse in their own rights in previous great films. The star power lured into this cast almost seems grossly unfair to all the other movies it tromped at the box office this weekend.
The climactic battle sequence in Hong Kong at first threatens to give us yet another generic end-of-movie light show, of the kind that helped kill Suicide Squad‘s remaining momentum. Instead, Strange and the filmmakers twist a few knobs, turn reality in a different direction, and deliver something I’ve never seen done in a big-budget action blockbuster before. And then they one-up it as matters shift elsewhere and Marvel’s visual effects guys just go nuts. That sensation of being genuinely surprised and thrilled by an expensive popcorn flick is rarer for me nowadays than it was in my youth,
Before the movie began, my son and I had been discussing ideas and names that we suspected they’d leave out and should therefore be in the sequel. In between the high-caliber performances and eye-popping imagery, somehow they found time to throw in nearly everything on our wish list. And I was delighted that they kept Our Hero’s home base, the mansion known as his Sanctum Sanctorum, right there on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village where it’s supposed to be. Really, the entire mid-movie wizard-on-wizard Manhattan melee did me the nice favor of bringing an awful lot of our New York City vacation photos to life. That’s not the only reason Doctor Strange may now be one of my Top Five Marvel Movies, but for me it’s certainly compelling.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there are indeed two scenes during and after the Doctor Strange end credits, along with a PSA buried near the end. For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
[and really you should bail out, because the final scene is entirely consequential and essential and makes no sense until after you’ve seen the whole thing]
…the mid-credits scene sees Our Hero hosting a meeting with Thor (Chris Hemsworth!) because he’s concerned that the Norse god has brought his brother Loki (Sir Not Appearing in This Picture) to New York, which concerns our heroic magical gatekeeper. Thor enjoys his magically refilling beer mug and mentions their quest to locate a missing Allfather Odin. Doc reasons that if finding Odin will get Loki off his lawn that much faster, then perhaps he’d better join them in Thor: Ragnarok, in theaters November 3, 2017. Plug plug plug plug plug.
For the sake of role-modeling issues, near the end there’s a short message cautioning viewers about the dangers of driving while using a phone, just as we see Doc do to his regret. Short version: DON’T BE A DOC.
Then there’s the far more impressive scene after the end credits, a harbinger of darker times ahead. A much spookier Mordo pays a visit to the house of Benjamin Bratt, whose magically reanimated limbs qualify him as a wizard on a minor technicality. Mordo’s sick and tired of all these magic-users doing whatever they want with their talents without caring deeply enough about rules or responsibilities or the Greater Good. With a new plan in mind, he lifts a hand and sucks all the magic out of Bratt’s body, leaving him a crippled, frightened wreck on the floor.
Mordo, with an intense resolve, tells Bratt what he believes is the real danger to humanity that’s his mission to solve:
“Too many sorcerers.”
To be continued…someday in the Marvel Cinematic Universe!