The paradox of contemporary Hollywood blockbusters is that in our time virtually anything conceivable, no matter how wild and out there, can be put on the screen, but it almost never is.
Theater attendance continues to decline, partly because 50-inch flatscreen TVs and digital streaming have made the theatrical experience less and less indispensable, but also because the actual visuals Hollywood puts on the big screen these days seldom demand to be seen there, or at all.
CGI battle scenes, urban destruction, giant spaceships, ugly CGI aliens and other familiar creatures, urban car chases, grungy medieval-type worlds and superpowered slugfests — we’ve seen all this before. How many action blockbusters show us something really different?
Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Marvel’s sorcerer supreme, is a rare action blockbuster — and an even rarer superhero movie — that really ought to be experienced, not only on the big screen, but in 3-D — and if possible in IMAX. I’m not generally a fan of live-action 3-D (animation is another story), but this is an exception. For once, the spectacle in a superhero movie is actually spectacular — and not like anything we’ve ever seen.
Yes, you may be reminded of Inception and The Matrix, among others — and not just because of the urban landscape-bending effects of the one or the gravity-defying stunts in both. (Films I was fleetingly reminded of include Gravity, Interstellar, Labyrinth and even The Avengers.)
But Inception used its most dazzling effects purely for a training-sequence wow factor. In Doctor Strange, up and down are relative, fluid concepts in ways that are entirely practical and tactical when sorcerous adepts square off against one another.
And it’s not just up and down — everything is fluid. Architecture doesn’t just fold and bend, it flows and reconfigures itself in kaleidoscopic, iterative patterns. In a trippy mind-expanding early sequence, parts of the protagonist’s body, most memorably his fingers, are warped in fractal-like ways.
There’s an action scene that’s like that dream where something is chasing you, but no matter how hard you run you can’t get anywhere. There’s a computer-animated character (you have to call it a character) that’s a kind of descendant of Disney’s very first computer-animated character, Aladdin’s Magic Carpet. In the very end, there’s a loopy sequence in which time is flowing in two directions at once.
If it were only fun and weird to look at, Doctor Strange would still be worth catching in theaters. In fact, it’s the most satisfying Marvel movie at least since The Avengers and the best Marvel origin story since the original Iron Man — maybe ever. Perhaps we might say simply that Derrickson has made a bona fide movie at a time when Marvel is only doing installments.
The origin story beats are familiar, of course. Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange, a brilliant, self-important neurosurgeon whose career is derailed when his body is shattered in a car accident on the Jersey side of the Hudson Valley, within sight of the George Washington Bridge. (Derrickson makes the best use of setting and location shooting in any Marvel movie to date.)
After exhausting his medical options and his bank account, Strange winds up in Nepal, in Kathmandu, where he uncomfortably eyes hucksterish signs like “Holy Tours: Himalayan Healing.” But he has reason to believe that medical miracles happen here, and, eventually, he comes face-to-face with Tilda Swinton in the Morpheus role of bald-headed mentor into the world of mind-bending realities and transcendental superpowers.
Cumberbatch is so ideally cast that he could phone it in and he’d be fine, but Swinton, who is playing an iconoclastic reinterpretation of an archetypal figure literally called the “Ancient One,” comes up with an utterly fresh, offbeat take on the mentor role. She wears her authority lightly, playing the part with a literal wink that doesn’t in the least dissipate the otherworldly aura that Swinton seems to possess anyway.
The rest of the movie is as well cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings his customary conviction to a dedicated disciple of the Ancient One named Karl Mordo. Benedict Wong plays a character also named Wong, here reimagined not as Dr. Strange’s valet and sidekick, but as his peer and tutor.
Although the mystical language is occasionally that of esoterica or occultism — notably in connection with astral projection — there appears to be more than a little of Derrickson’s Christian sensibilities in Swinton’s critique of Strange’s rationalistic, materialistic worldview. “You’re looking at the world through a keyhole,” she tells him. “You think you know how the world works; you think this material universe is all there is.”
Strange isn’t buying it. “There is no such thing as spirit!” he snaps. “We are made of matter and nothing more. You’re just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.” Later these words come back to him in an uncomfortable way from an unexpected source.
Like the Marvel films’ treatment of Thor’s mythological origins (Odin says the Asgardians aren’t gods), Doctor Strange semi-demythologizes the mystical: The Ancient One tells Strange that he is free to think of their discipline in quasi-scientific terms if he wishes.
This, of course, raises the question: What is magic? Arthur C. Clarke famously observed, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”; conversely, it might be maintained that any sufficiently reliable, reproducible magic is indistinguishable from technology. (C.S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, points out that serious magic and serious science arose at the same time and from the same impulse; what differentiated them was that science worked and magic didn’t.)
Notably, the Ancient One and her students manipulate and control arcane energies without resorting to ritual or invocatory techniques; there is no summoning, appeasing or offering fealty to powers and principalities. On the contrary, it’s the bad guys who do those things. (A similar pattern applies to the Harry Potter universe: Good magic is like technology; only bad magic is occultic and ritual.)
So far, so good — but then Doctor Strange throws a curve. All is not as it seems; rules are laid down but not always followed. (There’s some talk here about “natural law,” which seems, alas, to refer to the natural laws studied by scientists rather than the natural law studied by moral philosophers.) Rationales are offered that seem sometimes persuasive and sometimes not. A defense is offered for having the “flexibility” to “break the rules to serve the greater good,” but was the greater good really served? One character cogently criticizes these compromises, but this critique leads this character down a very wrong road.
It appears, in fact, that a character who seemed utterly trustworthy may not be, and a character who in future installments will be a villain — potentially the second interesting Marvel villain, after Loki — may have had a point.
Certainly this rising villain promises to be more interesting than this movie’s villain du jour, a renegade sorcerer named Kaecilius, played by Mads Mikkelsen. Mikkelsen fans may be disappointed that Kaecilius isn’t a better-developed character, but saving the better villain for another movie is the right call. The classic origin-story blunder is to try to introduce the hero’s archenemy and stage their ultimate showdown all in the same story (offenders range from Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel).
On the other hand, the film does briefly throw in possibly the ultimate Dr. Strange antagonist, the malevolent entity Dormammu, who inhabits a realm called the Dark Dimension. (Dormammu is described here as having “infinite power,” though by the end it’s obvious this isn’t literally true.) This is perhaps a mistake, although the way Dr. Strange deals with Dormammu is certainly creative.
Certainly I appreciate the fact that Doctor Strange doesn’t come down to slugfests and explosions and doesn’t end with the usual superhero-movie urban destruction — or, rather, that it finds a solution to that pitfall that is unique, to say the least.
I’m intrigued by Doctor Strange’s moral gray areas; my main concern here is that future installments may not get it right. If Dr. Strange, as an established hero, goes on to “break the rules for the greater good” in the way most crucially contested here, this will have to be clearly seen, like Tony Stark creating Ultron, as a bad mistake.
That’s certainly possible, because, like most Marvel origin stories, Doctor Strange is structured as a redemption story, with an egocentric protagonist who needs to save himself before he can save anyone else. Stephen Strange isn’t as entertainingly voluble in his venality as Tony Stark, but then part of the charm of his character is that he’s an even bigger deal in his own mind than he is in other people’s.
An early medical sequence establishes many things at once: Strange’s brilliance and arrogance, his cruelty and aloofness (watch the brief dialogue-free shot in which he meets a grateful family member’s embrace with a side hug), his precise, steady hands. Rachel McAdams does wonders in these scenes with the underwritten part of Strange’s medical peer and sometimes love interest, Christine Palmer. (Will Marvel never again manage a love interest to match Pepper Potts?)
As our hero progresses in his mastery of the mystic arts, it’s unclear for some time how much moral progress he’s making, if any. Long after he has learned advanced sorcerous techniques, one lesson continues to elude him: “It’s not about you.”
I almost wish Doctor Strange existed in its own universe and didn’t have to be absorbed into the MCU juggernaut. I think I sighed aloud at the end when a character finally uttered an inevitable phrase tying the film into the upcoming Infinity War arc.
It’s true that the weirdness that comes with Dr. Strange territory could liven up the next multi-character Marvel extravaganza — Thor: Ragnarok, to be specific — but by the same token, the sameness of standard Marvel product will surely dilute what is so much fun about this stand-alone movie. I’d rather have another Doctor Strange movie as self-contained as this one, with a beginning, middle and end.
Caveat Spectator: Sorcery theme; varying degrees of violent imagery, including a suggested decapitation, fleeting impalement and an intense vehicular accident and some medical gore; references to a past sexual relationship; brief bad language. Teens and up.