The first thing to understand about Doctor Strange is that he was very much a product of his time. Yet he was also slightly ahead of his time. The character made his debut in July of 1963, only a couple of months after Timothy Leary famously lost his job at Harvard on accusations related to psychedelics. It wasn’t really until the late ’60s when most of pop culture started to note the trends of mysticism and psychedelic use (see: “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1967, the pagan band Coven at about the same time, Woodstock in the summer of ’69, etc.), yet both have been indispensable elements of Doctor Strange from the very beginning.
Stephen Strange, once a prodigiously talented but hopelessly arrogant neurosurgeon, lost his dexterity in a car accident. Desperate to reclaim his skills as a surgeon, he sought the help of mystics in the East, who taught him the ways of magic. In the following years, Strange would become the world’s greatest magician — the Sorceror Supreme — charged with protecting the world and its inhabitants from all manner of spiritual and extradimensional evils.
It’s an iconic origin story, and a premise that allows for any number of possible stories across all conceivable planes of existence. The appeal should be obvious, as well as the problems. How do you ask anyone coming in cold to pick up a comic book with such a sprawling and bizarre cosmology behind it? Even within the Marvel Universe itself, there’d be no way to have some huge Earth-shattering event without asking where the all-powerful Sorceror Supreme is and why he can’t do anything to fix it.
The character and his adventures are so visually extraordinary that they practically demand a cinematic adaptation, yet the bonkers mythology and the limitations of special effects technology — not to mention the patience of a mainstream audience — kept getting in the way. One notable effort involved a TV movie in 1978, with bland characters, laughable effects, an embarrassing attempt at replacing the Eastern mysticism with fugazi Arthurian lore, and (most unforgivably) omitting the “car crash” origin story altogether.
Cut to a few decades later, when Marvel Studios had built up the clout and the resources to take a shot at adapting the unadaptable.
Right off the bat, Doctor Strange opens with a scene between monks in what appears to be some kind of Eastern temple. The resulting fight spills out into an urban area, where magicians bend time and space in such a way that it looks like five layers of Inception within Inception.
So yeah, the movie absolutely keeps the original “mysticism and psychedelics” influences 100 percent intact, presenting ’60s influences with a distinctly modern style. More than that, this is a film that has all of time and space across all possible universes and planes of existence as its setting. The filmmakers were given a toolbox that’s quite literally infinite, and they used it to bring us action scenes that defy imagination and description. The influences are also used for jokes and sight gags that are legitimately funny.
Oh, but nobody ever once says “By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth”, so there’s that.
Then of course we have the title character and his portrayal. Given that it’s Benedict Cumberbatch playing an insufferably arrogant genius, the obvious comparison would be to the same actor’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. And yes, they are similar in that they both crave a challenge, brazenly turning down or brushing off cases they deem to be unworthy of their time and talent. But perhaps the closer comparison would be to Tony Stark — ever the cornerstone of the MCU — another insufferably arrogant genius whose acts of charity take a backseat to his own personal glory and material comforts, until he has to make peace with his ego. But they go about it in very different ways.
To start with, Strange was the victim of a car accident that was entirely his own fault, while Stark was the victim of a weapon he made that got thrown back at him by someone else. It’s a subtle distinction, but a crucial one.
More importantly, Stark’s story is one of a man who struggles with his own ego by learning how to take responsibility. His name and his fortune (both his own and that of his father) were built on weapons that took however many lives, and he has to find some way to make his peace with that and reshape his legacy accordingly. Post-Avengers, Stark came to the realization that he was just a man in a tin suit caught in an intergalactic war between gods, so he had to struggle with his ego-driven need to stay relevant in that fight (hence the vast arsenal of suits he built for Iron Man 3). This led directly into Ultron and Civil War, both of which revolved around Stark’s paradoxical attempts at limiting his own power — and those of his colleagues — by forcing his ideas onto others.
In summary, Stark is constantly in a losing battle with his ego, succumbing to his obsessive — however well-intentioned — need for control. Compare that to Strange, who learns to overcome his ego by giving up some degree of control. Stark is constantly mistrustful of his colleagues, while Strange has to learn to trust those next to him. Where Stark totally refuses to acknowledge himself as an insignificant speck in the greater cosmos, Strange learns to make his peace with that. And in the process, he learns more about the various forces, rules, and dangers of the greater cosmos. Thus he and his fellow mystics are able to manipulate the system and fight the dangers accordingly.
Though never once is Strange made to take any kind of culpability for the car accident he so clearly caused. The guy was his own downfall and that’s never once addressed. Aside from that huge missed opportunity, there’s a surprising amount of thematic depth here. There’s all sorts of stuff about life and death, faith and doubt, the material world versus the spiritual world, and mankind’s place in the greater cosmos. And a lot of that comes courtesy of the Ancient One, so we might as well dive right into that particular hornet’s nest.
Tilda Swinton plays the role perfectly. The Ancient One is a heavily dynamic character, a mother figure and a teacher whose methods and agenda are a constant mystery. She’s a natural leader, a nurturing mentor, and a stone-cold badass, going from one to the other and back again in an instant. All of this stuff fits squarely into Swinton’s wheelhouse, and she effectively makes the role her own in a way that’s captivating to watch from start to finish.
Though in the comics, the Ancient One is a stereotypical old Asian man. A Tibetan man, to be specific.
This is not the first time Marvel has had to grapple with the use of ignorant racist stereotypes and cliches in its past. The most obvious other example is the Mandarin, a Fu Manchu sort of villain portrayed in Iron Man 3 as a strange kind of cultural mishmash personified by Ben Kingsley. Until (Spoilers, I guess?) it was further retconned that Kingsley’s character wasn’t the actual Mandarin, but a mouthpiece for someone else entirely. AND THEN, in the canonical short film “All Hail the King”, it was revealed that the Mandarin name had merely been co-opted, and the real Mandarin has been so far underground this whole time that we haven’t met him yet.
Marvel hasn’t really gotten this figured out, is what I’m saying. Though to be fair, even DC has had similar troubles: Just look at the treatment of Ra’s al Ghul’s identity in Batman Begins.
Look, I’m entirely in favor of greater diversity in mainstream Hollywood movies. We definitely need more of that. Unfortunately, there would be no way to cast a Tibetan or Chinese actor without perceivably taking sides on the ongoing conflict between those two cultures (and pissing off the all-important Chinese market). Furthermore, the Ancient One and his place in the story are such that there would be no way to completely erase the spectre of that ridiculous “old wise Asian mentor” cliche.
There was no way to win this, so the filmmakers went and cast Tilda Swinton, and she did a fine job. I can’t say for sure whether the movie would have done better with an Asian actor in the role, but I know the movie and the character work perfectly well as is. And I also know that casting a woman to play a traditionally male role is no small victory. Additionally, it bears mentioning that Wong (here played by Benedict Wong, who was born to Chinese parents) was traditionally Strange’s loyal Asian manservant, and this film promotes him into a bona fide badass worthy of fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of Earth’s magicians. Plus, we’ve got Chiwetel Ejiofor playing the traditionally white role of Mordo. So personally, I’m inclined to let this whole white-washing thing slide.
…For now. I seriously cannot wait to bring this up again when The Great Wall comes out. That should be fun.
But let’s back up a bit and talk some more about Mordo. Baron Mordo (as he’s referred to in the comics — he’s not a baron in the film) is a prime nemesis of Doctor Strange in the comics, so I don’t mind spoiling that his development arc in this movie is geared toward getting him to that point. Alas, it feels like Chiwetel Ejiofor was only barely putting any kind of effort into his performance here.
Don’t get me wrong, Ejiofor is always a joy to watch onscreen, and he’s still more charismatic on his worst day than hundreds of other actors are at their best. But I’ve seen Serenity enough times to know that Ejiofor can play a more compelling threat than this. I don’t know if it was the writing or direction or the performance or some combination of various factors, but the character just didn’t land as hard as it should’ve.
A lot of that has to do with his motivations for slowly turning evil. To put this as spoiler-free as I can, there’s a lot of lip service given to the “natural order” of things, and there’s this huge discussion about whether the rules of that order can and should be broken to serve the greater good. Basically, Mordo and Strange part ways over a debate on whether the ends justify the means. And this issue would have a great deal more weight to it if defying this “natural order” had any visible consequences other than vague warnings.
Another key motivation concerns the secrets that held from the characters until plot-convenient moments. That would be cliched and problematic enough, especially when such mysteries and revelations are so crucial to the motivations of our villains. But then Wong had to go and say “No knowledge is forbidden in this place.” Yeah fucking right.
Aside from that, I’m afraid there’s not much I can say about Wong. He’s stoic and tough in a way that lends itself to humor, but never in such a way that we stop taking him seriously as a guy you damn well want on your side.
Moving on, let’s talk about Christine Palmer, played here by Rachel McAdams. She’s of course the love interest, but there’s a slight twist in that this character is already Strange’s ex-girlfriend when we meet them. Thus they already have an established history and that saves us all a lot of time. Alas, the chemistry between actors is such that they’re far more effective as bitter ex-lovers than actual lovers. When the two of them tried to sell a rekindled romance, the spark just wasn’t there.
Regarding her involvement to the plot, Christine is an ER doctor who serves as Strange’s assistant when medical help is necessary. So she’s valued for her skills and knowledge as a medical professional and she’s not just a trophy for the male characters to fight over, which is definitely a plus. More importantly, while Strange initially serves as the voice of skepticism to serve as a foil for all the crazy shit happening around him, there comes a time when Strange can’t serve that purpose anymore because he’s in so deep with the mystical arts. Thus Christine comes back in after a lengthy absence from the film to help serve that same purpose. And in her contrast with Strange, she also shows how far our title character has come in that same time. Nicely done.
We come at last to the villain. From the very first moment I saw Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) in the trailers, I immediately flashed back to Malekith. I was so deeply afraid that we’d get another wafer-thin waste of a good actor for our villain. So when I say that Kaecilius exceeded my expectations, you should take that as faint praise.
To be fair, Kaecilius is motivated by quite a few of the same poorly-delivered factors that drive Mordo to his eventual betrayal, so it makes sense that the two characters’ respective development arcs succeed and fail on similar points. That said, Mikkelsen still has more than enough screen presence to sell himself as an effective threat, and the character would’ve fallen flat on the page if Mikkelsen wasn’t putting in so much effort to sell this villain.
Elsewhere in the cast, Michael Stuhlbarg appears as Dr. Nicodemus West. He bears virtually no resemblance to the comics character of the same name, but he’s a colleague that Strange very slowly comes to respect in a nice illustration of his growing humility. But then we have Jonathan Pangborn, a character who was never in the comics and appears in only a couple of scenes for the sole purpose of conveying exposition. Why they got Benjamin Bratt to play this character when any no-name actor would’ve done just as well, I couldn’t tell you.
Oh, and there’s also the Cloak of Levitation. It’s a CGI creation that never gets a line, but that cloak is the character who steals the whole show. Seriously.
In case it isn’t clear by now, the plot has some problems. It certainly doesn’t help that literally the entire first half of this movie is pretty much wall-to-wall exposition, as we have to learn who Strange is and we have to learn all this stuff about the mystic arts just as he does. On the one hand, I understand and respect that this is some high-concept and fantastical stuff to wrap our heads around, and a whole fuckton of explanation is necessary if we’re going to have even the slightest hint of what we’re looking at. I accept this as a necessary drawback, especially when all of this exposition is presented with such humor, energy, and style throughout.
On the other hand, the scale of this story and the demands of its plot are both so great that some annoying leftover holes are inevitable. My favorite recurring problem concerns the “sling ring” that makes teleportation possible. It’s a ring big enough that it fits across two fingers, and it’s apparently so common that every magician has one — how such an item could be lost or stolen so easily is beyond me.
The far bigger problem concerns the development arc of our main character. As I’ve already stated, at least half the plot is comprised of Strange staying at this temple in Kathmandu and learning the ways of the mystic arts, yet there’s nothing to show how much time has passed while he’s there. Either it’s long enough that we have to wonder why the villain’s big doomsday plan took so long, or it’s short enough that we have to wonder how and why Strange was able to learn so much about magic in so little time. Then again, considering that time and space are infinitely flexible in this picture, it’s probably a moot point.
Even so, that doesn’t take away from some serious problems with how Strange’s mastery of magic tends to come and go when it’s convenient to the plot. What’s even worse is how Strange gets two of his most iconic possessions. The Cloak of Levitation, we’re told, is one of many magical relics that choose their owners. How and why does it choose? Nobody can say. Which effectively means that Strange is only worthy to wear the cape because the cape itself (read: the plot) says so. The other big one is the Eye of Agamotto, a device of incredible magic that Strange can somehow miraculously use, and he first does this by breaking the rules with no visible consequences.
Incidentally, the Eye of Agamotto has a design that comics fans will recognize as the Seal of Vishanti, which also adorns the Sanctum Santorum in New York. Except that in this film, there are three different Sanctums and they are all marked with a different seal, and Vishanti is never mentioned. So is there some reason why the New York location is the only one to have the same design as this one particular relic? Never explained!
As for miscellaneous notes, I want to stress again that the action sequences and set pieces are bursting with creativity and a joy to watch. That said, the film makes heavy use of a “mirror dimension” that looks like our world and can be manipulated like our world, except that nothing in the mirror dimension actually affects our world. This takes a fair bit of wind out of a lengthy and trippy action sequence set in New York City in the mirror dimension. If all of that stuff was really happening with civilians caught in the mix, it would’ve made the stakes a lot higher, just saying.
A shout-out is also due to maestro Michael Giacchino, who put together some truly fantastic music for this piece. It’s trippy and atmospheric throughout, but always in a way that keeps a sort of “superhero” flavor, if that makes sense. I’ve heard it compared to the BBC Sherlock theme (Cumberbatch again), and not without reason. But personally, I prefer a comparison to some of Bear McCreary’s material, particularly his highly underrated theme for “Constantine“.
To sum up, Doctor Strange is a thin story redeemed by stellar presentation. The broad strokes of the story are all highly predictable, and even a solid hour of wall-to-wall exposition isn’t enough to cover all the necessary ground. Even so, it never fails to be exciting and fun and humorous. The filmmakers truly went above and beyond in crafting unforgettable action sequences and mind-blowing set pieces. Even better, all of this psychedelic magical nonsense is framed in such a way that the audience is able to follow along and figure out what’s going on with some reasonable degree of confidence.
It’s a film that gets by on the strength of its visuals and effects, but I’m not one to mind that for a movie that uses visual effects to show me something I’ve never seen before and could never see anywhere else. Mission accomplished. Check this one out in IMAX if you can.