Doctor Strange entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe at a time where audiences felt bombarded with stories about white men getting superpowers. To the MCU’s credit, it nailed down a respectably solid ‘origin story’ blueprint that worked time and time again. However, the formula was becoming predictable and threatened to hold these films back from going into new areas.
Sometimes, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. But you also can’t build a plane out of tyres.
So you can’t blame a fatigued fan for feeling a bit ho-hum about another story of a white man getting superpowers, especially during an MCU marathon. On the flipside, for those who can’t get enough of origin stories, you can also understand how this film blew their minds out of their earholes and into another dimension. In this sense, Doctor Strange nearly perfects the subgenre.
Though this storyline is nothing new, the action sequences are unlike anything anyone had seen on this scale. I like to describe the opening scene as a kaleidoscopic martial arts wizard* battle set in a rotating MC Escher metropolis of death, which is how I would’ve pitched the film to Disney before they signed me a surfboard-sized cheque and the deed to the EPCOT Center.
*before you correct me, yes, I know ‘the mystic arts’ is technically not the same as ‘wizardry’, but I’m calling them wizards anyway
It’s a mighty start, a hearty tease of the eye-warping scenarios the trailer promised. It makes it far easier to swallow the origin story beats that are passing their Best Before dates.
The film introduces Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) as the medical field equivalent to Tony Stark – mega-rich, super arrogant, annoyingly smart. Then an accident breaks his precious surgeon hands and forces a big ol’ humble pie down his throat. Beat number one.
There’s a love interest (Rachel McAdams) who exists almost solely to tell him: “Stop being such a rich, arrogant, annoyingly smart asshole.” Beat number two.
Strange receives teachings from a wiser, older, foreign person (Tilda Swinton) who will end up tragically dying. Beat number three.
Training sequences. Beat number four.
Experienced sidekick (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Beat number five.
There’s an evil person (Mads Mikkelsen) who has pretty much the same powers as the hero but is evil. Beat number six.
(Even his flashy watch gets broken during an old-school mugging in the vein of Batman, Spider-Man and Captain America. Bonus Beat.)
Doctor Strange bangs that same origin story bongo hard, but it does deliver little dips to each beat. Unlike Stark, Strange started in the business of saving lives rather than taking them; the romance with Dr McAdams doesn’t end happily ever after; Swinton’s Ancient One commits a pretty serious offence; and Ejiofor’s Mordo hands in his two weeks’ notice at the end of the film.
These tweaks give a stale formula some freshness, as does the crackling dialogue. The actors also bring their A-game, with Cumberbatch doing some shockingly good hand-acting and Ejiofor treating the material as if it were King Lear. It sucks to have the stink of whitewashing plague The Ancient One’s casting because Swinton is otherwise great in a role denied to an Asian actor. I’m still stoked to see Benedict Wong in a big superhero film and hope he gets even more screen time down the line – that man is great and he deserves it.
The film even got a great performance out of Strange’s cloak. (Just don’t call it a cape or you’ll get corrected by the director like we did.)
As for Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius… well… he ends up being as thin as almost every other MCU villain. That Hannibal brand of slowly-seeping creepiness isn’t given much time to sink in and while the idea behind his Godly leader Dormammu is clever in concept (Cumberbatch provides the facial mo-cap to imply that Dormammu takes on Strange’s appearance), it still ends up coming across as a big pudgy space face.
They’re tools for the action scenes which contain the film’s greatest achievement – the special effects. The FX department triumphantly adapted Steve Ditko’s psychedelic-and-beyond comic book art into modern moving imagery. In a genre where CGI can come across as overblown and under-imaginative, the Doctor Strange crew pulled off some creatively extravagant sequences (as well as the smaller, smarter scenes) that make you fall in love with computer-generated visuals all over again.
Strange’s first experience outside his dimension is a visual washing machine of colourful weirdness that makes Wonderland look like an accountant’s office cubicle. The fight with Scott Adkins’ astral projection is incredibly imaginative and delivers a couple of solid gags. The knockout Mirror World chase manages to dazzle and bedazzle with a cognitive overload of folding cities and visual illusions. And the Hong Kong climax puts a respectable twist on the typically explosive Final Battle by playing everything in reverse.
If you didn’t see this film on the big screen, buy yourself a nice big can of FOMO spaghettiOs.
It all culminates in a great showdown between Strange and Dormammu that is perhaps the film’s biggest twist on the origin story blueprint. It’s a moment so refreshing and distinctive, it has its own Twitter account.
There’s even some great thematic resonance here. Strange’s entire journey has been about letting go of the ego attached to his identity as a hot-shot surgeon. With a rewinding finale that prevents destruction from ever happening, Strange’s act of heroism goes entirely unnoticed by the world around him – an egoless act that he takes in his stride.
This is reinforced at the end with a subtle, beautiful shot I never noticed the first time. Strange looks at his broken watch, which is strapped to his broken surgeon hand. With his new powers, he can fix both of them. However, as he now knows, time isn’t fixed, and neither is his identity. So he leaves them just the way they are.
Maybe wizards can make aeroplanes out of tyres.