“It’s not about you”
People love to complain about superhero origin story trappings and they’re correct. The need to introduce new characters in their own standalone piece forces writers and directors to focus on certain check stops as far as normal life, transformation, and the embracing of one’s power to find the courage to selflessly fight evil. But just because these things are obvious doesn’t mean they have to be boring or that they have to diminish the final product. Many Marvel Universe fans still laud Iron Man as this amazing film because it came first and delivered the promise of what came next. Reality, however, shows it as a very quintessential origin story with obvious trajectories and a two-dimensional villain. This is undeniable and yet it is still great.
I would argue Doctor Strange follows closely behind in this respect because while it does lean heavily on exposition, it also provides a singular visual experience that opens doors to a new multiverse-based mystical aesthetic. Much like Iron Man cemented a fresh comic book tone the studio would continue through three phases of development, Scott Derrickson‘s film gives us a glimpse at where it will go into phase four as well as an example of just how far visual effects technology has come. Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy brought the franchise into the orbit of other worlds, but despite pretty environments and alien make-up each was still ultimately tied to Earth-like rules of physics. All that’s been thrown out the window now. Imagination officially knows no bounds.
You must see this movie on an IMAX screen to properly experience what Derrickson and the myriad effects teams helping Industrial Light and Magic accomplished. There’s no question this is the only way to truly become enveloped by the insanity of astral projections, mirror dimensions, and an all-consuming darkness promising ever-lasting life. The opening scene pitting The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton‘s oft-discussed Celtic Sorcerer Supreme) against her former pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is memorable in its kaleidoscopic animation wrapping and unwrapping reality as gravity shifts and portals open, but Dr. Stephen Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) introduction to magic hurtling him through dimensions is like a 3D version of the “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence in Dumbo. These sorcerers have no qualms about scaring newcomers into becoming believers.
But these examples merely whet our appetite with ideas of how elaborate the fight sequences will prove and how unpredictable things will get as the characters effortlessly control time and space with relics and hand gestures. Derrickson and writing partner C. Robert Cargill (with Jon Spaihts providing the initial draft) use these instances as a way to get us acclimated to new possibilities and excited about something while the more straightforward plot-heavy story generically advances. We can only take so much of Strange’s internationally renowned doctor’s ego before beginning to lose interest in his evolution into the titular hero. There’s no better way to counter his misplaced vitriol after a car accident destroys his livelihood (his hands) than characters willing and able to knock him down a peg.
For the most part Strange’s former life is somewhat boringly clichéd. Stephen is a master at his craft, Dr. Nicodemus West (Michael Stuhlbarg) is good but can’t hold a handle in comparison (we’re made to despise him as a nemesis but he’s actually quite pitiable), and Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) is the one friend (ex-girlfriend) who sees past Strange’s rough edges at the healer inside. Fame, fortune, and vanity come into the fold and this “God” falls down into the dirt of adversity. We shouldn’t despise his attitude too much considering he did work extremely hard to be as good as he was, but it’s a welcome change when he pushes the doctors away and finds himself pushed back within the ancient sanctuary of Kamar-Taj.
This is where he meets The Ancient One and her unwaveringly pure and tough right-hand Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). What follows is sort of The Matrix meets Harry Potter as Strange goes to school by training with the two warriors and reading the books of librarian Wong (Benedict Wong). He’s mischievous, impetuous, and still impossibly independent as he rapidly advances to the point of attempting spells way beyond the regulations of “Natural Order” that his fellow sorcerers uphold. We get cool special effects as a result and wait patiently for the inevitable meeting with Kaecilius to test his strength, mettle, and allegiance. Discoveries are made, destruction is wrought, and Strange’s scientific and spiritual worlds collide in grand fashion with impressively designed astral ghost battles inside and around our reality.
The humor infused could be disliked, but I enjoyed it. Strange is similar to Stark in snarkiness except that the doctor isn’t particularly funny as much as cruel. Cumberbatch is perfect casting as written and there are unavoidable comparisons to his Sherlock Holmes in frustration, anger, and pride. Most laughter comes from reactions to his jokes whether Wong’s stoicism or Mikkelsen’s wry sarcasm. I could have done without the cheap laughs earned by Stuhlbarg’s broad strokes, but I understand the appeal of lightening things up when you have decapitations and a demonic entity bearing down with unyielding darkness (I did however chuckle at the way Dormammu’s wrath is fought). A little comic relief goes a long way when death literally looms over every moment from beginning to end.
And even though the climax is another giant monstrosity being unleashed on the Earth like so many others (see Ghostbusters, Batman v. Superman, and X-Men Apocalypse from this year alone), Doctor Strange subverts the power struggle with one of intellect. In some respect this final fight is less elaborate and intense than the wildly inventive Inception-like revolving room sparring session between Strange, Kaecilius, and the latter’s zealot Lucian (Scott Adkins), but it’s no less memorable in wit. Frankly, a battle of the minds to make good on a lot of theories and spells introduced solely to be used here is welcome after the previous massive set-pieces of constantly shifting geometric shapes breaking reality and re-assembling it. Credit the choreographers and cinematographer for some physically painful sessions too.
Like most Marvel these days, Strange’s tale is full of set-up for forthcoming adventures Thor: Ragnarök, Infinity War, and a potential Doctor Strange 2. Making McAdams’ character relevant in this story’s context beyond Night Nurse status is impossible, so perhaps we’ll get more from her in the future too. This film is all about Strange’s enlightenment. We get nice evolution for drama from Ejiofor’s Mordo too, but the rest are teachers and foils for the doctor. Swinton does what she does best and Mikkelsen too for those unfamiliar with his stellar foreign film work beyond villainy. They give one-note characters depth when lesser actors couldn’t. It all adds up to an enjoyably exciting romp that will mesmerize as it reminds us just how fantastical the genre can become.
courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures