Review: Doctor Strange (2016)

Marvel’s successfully expands the boundaries of their Multiverse

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I went to the theater to see Doctor Strange with more than a bit of trepidation. Having read nearly every comic ever written where the good doctor makes an appearance, I was sure Marvel could not possibly get the character even remotely right.

Why was I so dubious? Because there was so much controversy about this movie before it came to the screen. I think movies either thrive or die under such intense scrutiny and I was afraid this movie was too close to the edge because of underlying issues with the comic version of the character, his Pulp-era origins and the potential missteps in translation to the big screen.

Doctor Strange works on several fundamental levels. As a superhero movie, it moves fast. You barely get a chance to slow down and catch your breath before a significant transition takes place. Marvel has made it clear, it can tell an origin story. Fundamentally, all origin stories are the same. A person connected to the mundane world, gets an opportunity to become part of a larger, more fantastic tapestry. Thor is Marvel’s subversion of this trope.

The movie starts with a moment of awesome (a common trope where a particular character does something extraordinary, possibly for the last time) where we get to see just what an experienced magus is capable of.

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I stared in awe watching reality fold in upon itself, buildings becoming prayer wheels, grinding up disposable minions in an unexplained but clearly magical manner. Once close-combat is engaged, sparks fly, magical constructs are formed, martial arts and magic fuse into a perfect symmetry. Our introduction is complete. This is the Ancient One and she is a stone-cold piece of work. She is portrayed by the suitably enigmatic, Tilda Swinton.

Marvel has mastered the movie opening; bold, bombastic and over the top. The only thing I missed was the lack of the famed incantations common to the Dr. Strange comics. Gone were the casting of signature spells such as the Crimson Bands of Cytorrak or the Winds of Watoomb.

I rolled with it and the strange hand movements derived from a dancing/performance style called tuttering became a suitable, if silent, substitute for such incantations. I considered it a movie translation necessary to keep battles between magi fast enough to be interesting and merged with Eastern-style martial arts, a suitable fusion of form and function.

The movie slows down and begins its lovefest with hands. We will see hands focused on again and again. The underlying theme is the utility of hands as tools, as a focus for skill, and a measure of individual accomplishment. Stephen Strange, neurosurgeon, is portrayed as all of these things: almost supernaturally competent, his medical prowess unmatched by anything except his highly-developed sense of ego. Perfectly obnoxious and full of himself, we are never in doubt of his ability and he will never let us forget it.

Is he a man in need of a comeuppance? Oh yes. Are we sad when it occurs relatively quickly, I might add? Not a bit. Stephen Strange and Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of him, makes you dislike him almost instantly. Not because he is an over-preening pompous ass; he is, but you come to hate him because you see glimmers of decency in him when he is trying to reclaim his on again, off again relationship with Dr. Christine Palmer (played by Rachel McAdams). I am not a devoted fan of Cumberbatch but he embodies Dr. Strange well, filling the role as if he were born to it.

Like a painting by numbers, Strange’s fall from grace is predictable yet I think this was one of my favorite scenes; nicking the Lamborghini, swerving, the perfect fusion of arrogance, speed, and distracted driving.

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When we see Strange again, lots of medical jargon flies around the room but none of it is necessary. The pins, the stitches, and the stink of the failure of modern medicine is all over the scene. Strange’s mind is as broken as his hands, reduced to wallowing in desperate self-pity.

Strange now destroys the rest of his relationships and its painful to watch. Watching while doctors dodge him as a medical liability to their reputation brings him full circle since this was exactly what he was doing when he drove off the road. Strange spends himself into poverty. He is cast free of all mortal concerns save one.

To recover his hands at any price.

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Even when presented with the concepts of magic as a form of healing his rational mind draws the line, unable to believe in anything outside of the power of science. To be fair, until now, Marvel has painted the science hero as the cornerstone of their universe. Tony Stark, Hank Pym and Bruce Banner are all icons to the concept of science as a fundamental force in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Until now.

Possibly the best scene in this movie is when Strange meets the Ancient One and she expands his mind by releasing him on the ultimate acid trip. A voyage through layers of the Multiverse, a concept teased at in all of the previous Marvel properties; here, we are given a rapid-fire tour designed to enlighten and reveal to us a universe beyond our comprehension. Strange rationality is challenged when he realizes the Ancient One’s description of his reality was literally like seeing the Universe through a keyhole.

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Remember the awe you felt when you saw Tony Stark deconstruct the holographic theme park and create the hidden element his father somehow knew he would need? Or the first time you saw the Asgardian skyline in all of its majestic glory? Or perhaps the first time you laid eyes on Knowhere, the destination created from head of a cosmic entity in the Guardians of the Galaxy?

Bah. None of those things can hold a candle to seeing a glimmering of the layers of the Multiverse for sixty seconds. If you have money burning a hole in your pocket, see it in 3D. This is the sum total of all of reality, not just a sliver of it. Doctor Strange expands your perspective on the nature of reality in such a way that all of the Marvel movies to date seem almost inconsequential.

This is the gift Doctor Strange brings to the Marvel Universe: a cosmic sense of perspective. It gives us an awareness of what’s worth fighting and dying for. After this, the movie embraces its role as a superhero origin story, complete with villains to fight, sanctums to save, losses to endure and a world to save.

No, I am not going to reveal the rest of the movie because despite my reservations, it was great fun, possibly one of the best of Marvel’s recent collection and certainly one of the best showings of a single Marvel character since the Winter Soldier and the Black Panther debuted.

Doctor Strange has all the hallmarks of a great Marvel movie and quite a bit more. Action, adventure, a visual feast of special effects and a more than adequate delivery of a typical Marvel script; a script not too complicated to follow for the uninitiated, but with just enough Easter eggs to keep the hardcore fans paying attention.

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The movie stars a wide array of veteran acting talent which helps carry the day. I’ve already mentioned Ms. Swinton as the Ancient One. Well-known actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor is Mordo, a conscientious mystic who acts as mentor and confident for Strange. Expecting a heel-turn (because in the comics Mordo is technically Strange’s greatest enemy) I was pleased to see the movie didn’t revert to stereotypical depictions of a minority character. Mordo was a complicated man whose ultimate fate has yet to be revealed.

My MVP of Doctor Strange goes to Benedict Wong playing Master Wong, mystic librarian. The role was a controversial one in the original writing since he was a stereotypical Asian manservant to Stephen Strange. His rewritten role is fierce, loyal, and as magically capable of wielding the Wand of Watoomb as Stephen Strange. This is a good thing. Of all the transitions for roles made in this movie, I believe Wong’s transformation into a mystic is by far one of the most necessary and most effective.

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To be fair, I’ll mention my personal favorite Mads Mikkelsen as the unremarkable villain Kaecilius. He becomes the new servant to the dread Dormammu. It’s not his fault he doesn’t have much charisma, the script just doesn’t give him enough to do. If there is any vulnerability in a Marvel movie, their villains may be their weakest point.

Doctor Strange resists standard Marvel tropes. Unlike the Avengers and related properties, no cities are completely flattened in the making of this movie. Stephen Strange does his magic the way he does in the comics, out of the view of the public with no one the wiser for his efforts. Like the doctor he was before, Strange places the lives of people above all other things, endeavoring to do no harm even if it means he must place himself in the path of inevitable destruction, again and again.

By the time this movie ends, Dr. Stephen Strange is by no means complete. Working with the remaining mystics, he is still growing and we assume by the time of his appearance in either the next Thor movie or most assuredly in the next Avenger’s movie he will be more complete, more in sync with his comic self, relaxed, self-assured and worthy of his appellation: Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts and the Sorcerer Supreme of Earth!

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Doctor Strange is an almost perfect movie. Visually stunning and well-acted despite a script which was a little unevenly paced. Even to viewers who know nothing about the character, they should be able to follow along and enjoy the story.

My second MVP goes to the Cloak of Levitation which managed to steal every scene it was in. It did more in this movie than it ever got to do in the comics and to me, that was a nice touch. Though the movie had a very dark and adult tone, there were moments of humor and levity of which the Cloak provided.

Doctor Strange successfully expands the Marvel Universe with its psychedelic reveal of horrors beyond our imagination. The movie makes you happy to know: the Doctor is in.

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More Doctor Strange:

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The Answer-Man’s Archives are a collection of my articles discussing superheroes and their powers in relationship to their respective universes.

We deconstruct characters, memes, profiles and how superheroes relate to real world culture. You can find other Archives on Quora and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Stack Exchange or at The World According to Superheroes.

Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller. You can follow him on Twitter or support his writings on Patreon.

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