“Silence Your Ego, And Your Power Will Rise.”
Marvel Studios is back for their fourteenth movie in eight years, this time tackling comics’ most famous practitioner of magic and sorcery, Doctor Strange. After some bumpy pre-release controversy in the form of underwhelming trailers, accusations of whitewashing, and the shift in setting from Tibet (as in the comics) to Nepal, the film has finally arrived. Does this sorcerer reign supreme? Or do his parlor tricks ultimately fail to impress?
The titular surgeon, Stephen Strange, is as arrogant as he is skilled. It’s easy to compare Benedict Cumberbatch’s take on the character to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in the first Iron Man film; they both lose everything in a violent incident and have to scrape their way to superheroism and redemption. That being said, such an argument would be reductive to the rich acting and character beats which the movie provides. Likewise, the script may color within the established lines of the Marvel Origin Story Template ™ , but it still manages to provide some unexpected twists and deep character relationships, courtesy of director and co-writer Scott Derrickson, who possesses a respect for the characters and lets the film breathe, allowing the characters to interact with each other, and for the themes to soak in. Despite the massive action sequences and fantastical elements, the movie is a fairly narrow in terms of immediate scope, telling a mostly straightforward tale. Less is more, however, and keeping the plot to a minimum allows the story and characters to thrive.
Unlike Tony Stark, who used his prior knowledge of engineering to fashion a mech suit and exact righteous revenge on terrorists, Doctor Strange has his hands completely crippled in a car accident, and no amount of medical knowledge or even physical therapy can restore the skills which he lost in the crash. Instead, Strange goes to Nepal to learn about spirituality and magic, a whole new set of skills on which to build a new life. Benedict Cumberbatch has a unique vulnerability which is atypical in the MCU. Strange struggles between his goals and his duties, his ego and his newfound ideals, and that struggle makes him a more endearing character than expected, and lends the film more emotional weight.
Cumberbatch is great in his role (and his accent isn’t nearly as distracting as feared!), but the supporting cast really elevate the proceedings. Tilda Swinton, her whitewashed Celtic ethnicity notwithstanding, is a commanding presence as The Ancient One, her wiry frame accentuating her spell-casting prowess and unrivaled powers. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Mordo as a man with a burning intensity, only barely contained by his regal facade. On the villainous side, Mads Mikkelsen is engaging on a scene-to-scene basis, but his character, Kaecilius, isn’t particularly interesting beyond his terrific eye makeup and cool action sequences. Marvel is often perceived as having a villain problem, and Kaecilius won’t be changing minds in that regard. Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams makes the most of her supporting role as the relatively boring love interest. Most of her best scenes are in the film’s first act, after which she all but disappears in favor of the mystical elements. That being said, she plays a key role in one of the film’s many creative fight scenes. Overall, she’s not bad, for a muggle. One character which will surely prove to be a fan-favorite is Strange’s magical Cape of Levitation, which combines the ability of flight (a pre-requisite for nearly any superhero) with the rambunctious personality of the magic carpet from Aladdin, all without ever uttering a word.
Doctor Strange was marketed on its wild and psychedelic visuals, and the completed film does not disappoint. The film’s magic effects look both realistic and cartoon-like, in the best possible way. Combined with the wild Mirror Dimension and numerous other visual surprises, Doctor Strange looks amazing. The dissonance of magical monasteries transitioning seamlessly into urban city streets is a visual delight, as are the physics-defying fight scenes. In terms of audacity, tension, and pure imagination, the climactic final battle easily tops the last fight from Thor: The Dark World, which was the previous wild-and-crazy Marvel fight champion. The illusion is only ever really betrayed when the camera finds itself a bit too close to a CGI version of Strange or Kaecilius, which, while impressively detailed, is glaring when juxtaposed with a shot of the real actor.
Michael Giacchino’s score is bolstered by its sweeping instrumentation, making strong use of flowing harps, rigid harpsichords, and downright groovy guitar sounds. It’s almost enough to forgive many of the themes from being instantly recognizable to fans of his work on the rebooted Star Trek trilogy.
Overall, Doctor Strange proves that Marvel Studios still has a plethora of tricks up their sleeve. Even when working within the confines of a “non-event” MCU film, their films can still surprise us with relevant themes and jaw-dropping imagery. All of the peppy dialogue and crowd-pleasing action we’ve come to expect over the years is still here, refined to a razor sharpness, but it’s accentuated by strong direction, imaginative visuals, and Stephen Strange, one of the most intimately nuanced characters yet to grace Marvel’s cinematic universe.