Fourteen films in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe introduces The Sorcerer Supreme of Earth: Doctor Stephen Strange. It’s getting harder and harder to find new ways to praise Marvel’s interwoven film tapestry of wonder or Disney’s success in 2016, but I have a large vocabulary. Fortunate, that, because this is another home run. My policy is spoiler-free Marvel reviews, so I’m not going to give away plot details, and if you don’t want to know anything more than if the film is up to snuff: rest easy. Doctor Strange introduces an entire new dimension to an ever-expanding, ever-diversifying film universe of unforgettable characters. It’s powerful cast, deft direction, clever script, and MIND ALTERING visuals make this one of the strongest comic book origin movies of all-time.
Doctor Strange clearly is following the formula that made Guardians of the Galaxy the highest-grossing film of 2014 and elevated a bunch of unknown characters to superstar status. Just as Guardians showed audiences that there is a science fiction/cosmic element to the MCU every bit as deep and vast as Star Trek, Dr. Strange‘s task was to open the door to Marvel’s supernatural realm. Guardians was the biggest risk to-that point in the MCU and a pivotal success. It showed that audiences were now so invested in the grand universe and brand of Marvel and so trusting of their quality, that they’d go see a movie with a talking tree and a weapons-crazed raccoon. But to make sure they did, Marvel broke from casting mostly unknowns and filled the movie with established stars. Doctor Strange boasts four Oscar-nominated/winning actors, and stars Benedict Cumberbatch who has become a sort of living stamp of approval for geek franchises. Throw in Chewitel Eijifor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, and Mads Mikkelsen, and you have actors with the gravitas and talent to make this first trip into Marvel’s multiverse something that audiences will take as seriously as any Marvel film takes itself (which is just enough to make it emotionally resonate, but never so much that it’s tongue isn’t firmly planted in its cheek).
Strange is going to be an incredibly important character to the MCU going forward, and Cumberbatch had to make him unique and distinct from all the icons that have already established themselves in this world. Most importantly, Stephen Strange and Tony Stark could not be more different, but they are physically very similar and begin their separate stories in a very similar place of being extremely arrogant, wealthy, powerful ….jackasses. Cumberbatch in very short order makes the brilliant neurosurgeon an even bigger, even more arrogant jackass than Stark. Stark was likable and sympathetic even as a merchant of death. Strange is compelling and charismatic, but the car crash that destroys his hands and sends him on a journey to find answers outside the laws of nature doesn’t endear him to the audience. He IS a good man, and the film cleverly builds him up, but the good doctor’s journey is only just beginning.
Every good fantasy that incorporates magic needs that magic to have a tethered connection. A rulebook, for something that doesn’t have rules, if that makes sense. If you’re a reader of epic fantasy, you know the establishment of how magic works in the world is critical to that fantasy’s success. Oddly, the exception to this rule is The Lord of the Rings where Tolkien really made no effort to explain the magic (which-to be fair-is a limited part of that epic) in his stories. But he essentially created the modern fantasy and those who have followed and who have created worlds in which magic takes part, have taken many different paths to lay out its part in those worlds. The magic in the Marvel Universe is not Harry Potter magic, it’s not inexplicable conjuring either. Really, it’s an extension of Thor’s explanation of the mystic in his first movie, “Your ancestors call it magic, you call it science, I come from a place where they are one in the same.”
Which brings us to the visuals. The magic battles in Doctor Strange are like nothing you’ve ever seen in any film ever. No film demands IMAX 3D more than this because dimension itself is a weapon used by Marvel sorcerers. The visuals are nothing short of jaw-dropping. And, as an aside, Michael Giacchino, finally delivers a fantastic Marvel score. The music in most of the films (aside from the first Thor) have been average action scores, and he gives the Doctor a great theme (honestly, try humming another character’s; it’s my #1 complaint with the MCU overall). Digression over, back to the trippy eye candy. The trailers made it look a little too much like Inception in bits, but it’s nothing like that. You have no idea what you are looking at until you’re in the middle of these battles through space, reality, and time. Time. Doctor Strange might just have to become the official movie of Killing Time because there is no concept more important to the film than time. It fuels Stephen’s transformation and frustrates it, time provides the impetus for the schism in the MCU’s sorcerers, it provides the bedrock for the movie’s most touching scene, and it is its most potent connection to the overall tale being built film-by-film to The Infinity War.
The film is very funny in parts, cleverly weaves in the classic touchstones of Strange’s world (The Eye of Agamotto, The Ancient One, The Sanctum Santorum, The Wand of Watoomb, and-my favorite-The Cloak of Levitation and many more). However, a warning to parents, this is the hardest that a regular MCU film has pushed the PG-13 boundary. Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) has a solid background in horror and there are terrifying, disturbing, and bloody violence. It is in no way gratuitous. Everyone knows magic has a cost. There are no shortcuts in the universe, and sometimes that cost is exacted in blood. Civil War was a very dark film in parts, but had the Avengers lightness to it throughout most of its story. Doctor Strange is the darkest film in the MCU yet,but it’s appropriate to the character and to the door to the MCU this film opens.
Doctor Strange could have gotten bogged down in doing too much in his first outing (of many I have no doubt-stick around for the two end credits scenes and you’ll have apretty good idea of when you’ll next see him). Scott Derrickson wisely doesn’t even try to do more than introduce Strange and his supporting cast, open the door to the world of magic and give the MCU an even bigger sandbox in which to play, and give you an idea of the Doctor’s importance to the eventual war with Thanos and in the MCU beyond. This is a character every bit as interesting as Tony Stark and to have him introduced in film #14 shows you the depth to this world and the potential for its future.
DOCTOR STRANGE WILL RETURN!!!!