One thing lacking in both the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes is something that seems so fundamental to the superhero mythos: magic. Both franchises have alluded to it, with the cosmic beings of the Thor films and Guardians of the Galaxy or with the antagonist of DC’s Suicide Squad. There’s probably a good reason for that, given as how both Marvel and DC have gone out of their way to ground their franchises into more realistic fantasies, but it’s not something that can be avoided forever. In that respect, Doctor Strange is probably the best gateway drug one could possibly imagine for showing how truly fantastical a superhero film can be.
WARNING! MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS!
Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an absolutely brilliant neurosurgeon who also happens to be a brilliantly arrogant egomaniac. When a near-fatal car crash causes him to lose all feeling in his hands, thereby destroying his career, he exhausts the possibilities of Western medicine to find a cure and ends up in Tibet seeking spiritual healing. There is he trained by a being called the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) in the art of sorcery, and Strange joins a select group of spiritual guardians dedicated to protecting the world from mystical threats. Sure enough, one shows up in the form of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who intends to give the Earth over to an outer-dimensional being named Dormammu in exchange for eternal life. You know, as you do.
Eat your chakras out, Deepak.
Doctor Strange has an unenviable pair of goals to reach. It needs to introduce the world to another one of their flagship heroes whose reach outside the Marvel fandom is limited, and it needs to seamlessly fold the idea of dimension-bending sorcery into a franchise already packed with high-tech vigilante billionaires, aliens from Asgard, and talking raccoons. Either of those is a relatively daunting task, but director Scott Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill succeed with a blend of wit, action, drama, and some of the most beautifully bizarre visual effects the superhero genre has ever seen.
Strange isn’t just the main character of this story; he’s a metatextual audience insert. Just as Strange is introduced to the possibility of alternate dimensions and parallel universes, so are those of us watching the film. In a scene that plays like the Stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey after a diet of steroids and caffeine, Strange is hurtled through realities at a dizzying pace, the screen awash in psychedelic imagery and speeding colors. It lets both Strange and his equally bewildered audience know that everything we knew about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is about to be overturned and drastically expanded. This is probably the first MCU film that demands to be seen in the best 3-D theatre possible if only to appreciate not just scenes like this but the trippy action sequences where entire cities are bent at impossible angles with a mere wave of a hand.
A great place to raise your kids up, down, left, or right.
Derrickson, however, doesn’t let the bright CGI dictate the story; they're the effect of the story, not the cause. Sometimes it's even both, as is the case with Strange’s sentient Cloak of Levitation, which has a personality all its own. While this is probably the most effects-heavy entry in the MCU to date, it’s entirely justified and even welcome. There’s a giddy sense of abandonment during the action scenes where reality is literally being warped and shifted and folded like MC Escher doing origami. While Derrickson doesn’t always know how to frame the more epic sequences, he’s quite good at focusing on the smaller conflicts between individuals, such as a tense bout between Strange and one of Kaecilius’ disciples that takes place on the Astral Plane.
If Strange is indeed an audience surrogate, there could be no better choice for the good Doctor than Benedict Cumberbatch. On the surface, Strange more than resembles Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, as both are wealthy, highly intelligent men with inflated egos and impressive facial hair. But Downey’s Stark, as amusing as he is, always felt like an extension of Downey himself, giving the character a warm charm that made Stark appealing despite his arrogance. Cumberbatch intentionally downplays that vibe, showing Strange’s attitude as a barrier that keeps people out rather than a light that draws them in. In that respects, he seems like a much more realistic character, even if it makes him a less sympathetic one initially, and it makes his evolution from self-centered narcissist to altruistic hero all the more believable.
Whip it good.
Cumberbatch isn’t alone, though, and while most of the characters are defined by their relationship with Strange, they all give as good as they get. As a fellow student of the Ancient One, Chiwetel Eijofor’s Mordo is a formidable presence, grounded by Eijofor’s dedicated performance. He represents strict adherence to the rules that Strange is willing to break, and the two have an uneasy but undeniable chemistry from their first scenes together. Similarly, Rachel McAdams turns what may have been an otherwise thankless role into something genuine as Christine Palmer, an emergency room doctor that serve’s as Strange’s connection to the realm of the mundane. McAdams plays the character as someone who’s seen it all in terms of human suffering and has learned to handle things with a quiet strength, which includes rejecting the desperate, angry behavior Strange displays after his accident.
Tilda Swinton has perhaps a thankless job as the Ancient One, even if Derrickson admits that he wrote the part specifically for her, changing the character from an old Asian man to a Celtic mystic of indeterminate age and gender. While Derrickson and Cargill were accused of whitewashing the role, and to an extent that’s what they did, they also manage to avoid the hoary Fu Manchu cliche, the stock character of the mystic Asian master. Swinton does a predictably phenomenal job in the role, giving the Ancient One a strong dose of humanity and puckish humor, and after her first scenes it's impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part. Like so many of her genre pictures, Swinton disappears into the part completely. In a similar move, Derrickson and Cargill changed the character of Wong dramatically, moving him from Strange’s tea-making manservant to another Master student of the Ancient One, and Benedict Wong fills the role with a solid, welcome earthiness.
Out-of-body experiences are required for all applicants.
The most amazing trick that Doctor Strange has up its sleeve, however, is finally giving the MCU a compelling antagonist who’s villainy is sympathetic, even attractive. Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius isn’t looking to take over the world, but in his own way is trying to save it from itself, just as the Ancient One claims to do. Granted, their methods seem to be in direct opposition, but the more we learn about Kaecilius and his quest, the more we realize that he isn’t so different from our heroes. A constant theme throughout the film is that of characters learning to think outside themselves and to see everything as it really is. Kaecilius is someone who believes he knows the complete truth about everything, and it’s the unwillingness to go beyond that truth that makes him the villain more than any of his schemes or speeches.
Derrickson and Cargill do, however, fall into the origin-story trap as so many other superhero films have done. While the script is fresh and funny and makes the mystical mumbo-jumbo go down easy, it still adheres to the strict beats and moves that nearly every MCU origin story has done so far. In a film about a character who constantly bends the rules, this seems particularly inappropriate. Had the story been even just a shade more unpredictable, the film could easily stand as one of the best in Marvel’s repertoire.
Stephen Strange: Speed-Reader Supreme.
But in a way, that still serves the purpose of the picture. Doctor Strange’s world of mysticism, magic, and mutli-dimensional monsters might seen daunting and forbidding to people used to Captain America and Iron Man, but it’s just as accessible as any other superhero film, and in many ways quite a bit more fun than most of them. It’s a mind-bending, colorful, unabashedly outrageous shot of adrenaline, one the MCU didn’t even know it needed. The Doctor is most certainly in.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+