Marvel’s Doctor Strange is exactly the kind of superhero movie we all wanted to see back when the ads were promising that we would “believe a man can fly.” The mystic warriors here do a lot more than fly, and it’s all visually stunning. Much more important than the eye candy, however, are the personalities involved, their histories and motivations, and the importance of what they are all fighting for or against. If those things don’t engage us, the amazing effects are just a digital fireworks display.
Fortunately, engage us they do, and the result is a real-life distillation of the excitement and drama we found in comic books as kids. Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) isn’t the Master of the Mystic Arts fighting a bunch of nameless faceless monsters just because that’s what the job description says; he’s fighting to preserve the Earth and stop a lunatic renegade sorcerer with messianic tendencies from “saving” the world by feeding it to the all-consuming darkness of another dimension. More to the point, Strange is fighting this battle because he has to, before he’s ready, knowing he’s in way over his head and has to do it anyway. That’s compelling drama.
While all that’s going on Strange is also fighting an internal battle, as the man he is trying to become has to destroy the man he used to be. When we meet him, Stephen Strange is an arrogant narcissist; while he is a brilliant surgeon, he carefully chooses and rejects cases on the basis of whether they will make him look more brilliant and enhance his reputation. He’s also a showboater, doing procedures “the hard way” solely to impress the rest of the surgical team. Naturally he has left a few damaged relationships in his wake.
After the horrific accident (seriously, the car crash is going to give kids nightmares beyond anything else in the film) destroys his hands, Strange is driven to extreme and desperate lengths to try to restore his abilities so that he can return to his self-serving, ego-building surgical practice, believing that all of his worth lies in what he does rather than who he is. His coming to terms with the Ancient One’s admonition that “it’s not about you” drives Strange’s story, but his is not the only story being told. Indeed, it’s not about him, as evidenced from the very first scene of the film; Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, very creepy) and his followers invade the Ancient One’s library, behead the librarian (shown in shadows on the wall, mercifully) and tear a few pages out of a book, leading into a first-rate kung-fu actin showdown with the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) in an undulating cityscape that might have been conceived by M.C. Escher and Salvador Dalí after a three-day drinking binge, which serves merely as an appetizer for what’s to follow.
What follows are scenes taken directly from classic comics, easter eggs a-plenty, and a random sprinkling of connections to the rest of the Marvel Universe, including references to the Avengers and a few name-drops of really obscure characters from comics that Joe Mainstream has never heard of, including Runaways and Brother Voodoo.
The supporting cast carries their part of the film very well. Rachel McAdams does a credible job as Dr. Christine Palmer, Strange’s sometime girlfriend, surgical partner, support system and scapegoat, ultimately saving his life in a tense/funny action scene involving her trying to provide emergency medical care to Strange’s body while his astral form carries on a fight around them. Benedict Wong as the replacement librarian, Wong, is a no-nonsense hardass who serves as impatient mentor and occasional ball-buster to the good Doctor, reminding him that he does not know as much as he thinks he does. He’s got some beautiful moments, and his presence almost makes up for the whitewashing of the Ancient One.
Yeah, I said it. Scott Derrickson has also said it. In trying to avoid a lot of stereotypes and cliches, he swapped one offensive trope for another, and he has taken responsibility for it. While it would have been nice to see an Asian actor play the Ancient One as something other than the same old “Magical Asian” that we’ve seen in dozens of movies ranging from Lost Horizon to Remo Williams, the fact is Tilda Swinton admirably delivers a Sorcerer Supreme who is exactly what Doctor Strange needed. No doubt, Ken Watanabe or Michelle Yeoh or another Asian performer could have given an equally effective performance, and Derrickson definitely left the door open for the role to be recast in future films, but Swinton’s performance is excellent.
Chiwetel Ejiofor serves as a friendly rival to Strange; Mordo is a rigidly precise student of the Ancient One, who is more than a little irritated by Strange’s cavalier approach to the rules. Fans of the comic have a pretty good idea how that will play out, but what’s interesting this time is the why and how of his character arc, and Ejiofor sells it convincingly.
Fans of the comic also have a mental checklist of things they expect to see in a Dr. Strange movie, and one of the impressive tricks Derrickson manages is showing how these iconic elements came into Strange’s life without it feeling contrived or forced; consider for a moment the first 15 minutes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, wherein we see how Dr. Jones acquired his bullwhip, hat, fear of snakes and the scar on his chin, in one extended and painfully-contrived action sequence. As amusing as it was, we were all acutely aware of what Spielberg was doing, but it was enough fun that we let him get away with it. Derrickson does something similar here for the fan base, but most non-comics fans will be oblivious to it, because he does it deftly and spreads it out over a couple of hours.
So, about that checklist… Minus any spoilers, here’s what you can check off: the Cloak of Levitation; the Eye of Agamotto; the Wand of Watoomb; extradimensional weirdness on an epic scale; the Ancient One, Mordo, and a whole bunch of mystical kung fu warriors; and Wong. Even the orange gloves make an appearance. About the only thing missing is Clea, and maybe she’ll show up in the sequel. The Cloak of Levitation in particular is hugely entertaining. At GeekDad, I called it “the most entertaining piece of fabric since Aladdin’s flying carpet,” and I’ll stand by that.
Of the 14 Marvel movies so far, I’d rank Doctor Strange in the top five, along with Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America: Civil War. It’s almost as funny as Ant-Man, with a resonant emotional core on the same level as Captain America and Iron Man, and as weird as Guardians. Like the latter, this is a movie that could only be made by a studio powerful enough to tell investors to shut up and cash their checks. It’s an original take on the superhero genre, and in a nice twist, the plot is not about chasing after a cosmic MacGuffin for a change. The conflicts are genuine, driven by human emotions that actually make sense to us.