The Marvel Cinematic Universe gets magical with Doctor Strange, a big-budget entry into the ever-expanding movie series featuring the cult comics character. Strange has a long and bizarre history in the comics: he first appeared as part of a Marvel anthology comic, before getting his own title. In the 1980s, the character, along with other supernatural superheroes like Ghost Rider took on a new level of popularity, enough so that Hollywood took notice.
The road to Hollywood for Dr. Strange began in 1986. Back to the Future writer Bob Gale penned a script, but no movie ever materialized. Over the years, Wes Craven, Alex Cox, and David Goyer all expressed interest in the material, though ongoing legal issues always blocked the film from getting the green light. With the success of the MCU beginning with Iron Man in 2008, Marvel began making plans for the Sorcerer Supreme to enchant movie audiences as part of the shared Marvel universe. Now it arrives in theatres, so check out 15 Reasons to See Doctor Strange!
The sorcerer supreme finally comes to life in live-action (not counting that godawful TV movie with Peter Hooton), and just as Marvel fans rejoiced at the news that Benedict Cumberbatch was donning the Cloak of Levitation, so will they rejoice seeing him on screen. Cumberbatch brings his angular features, piercing blue eyes and basso voice to the role in fine form. His presence in the film might read as simple typecasting: Stephen Strange is of character that Cumberbatch played on Sherlock, and in The Imitation Game. Though typecast, Cumberbatch’s casting is good casting, and that’s what matters in the context of Doctor Strange.
He brings layers of uncertainty to the role as the film develops, and carries the movie with poise. Cumberbatch also injects a bit of Tony Stark-style snark into the character, which will surely draw fan comparisons between the two. Regardless, Cumberbatch makes Strange compelling every moment he appears on screen.
The internet had a mild fit over the casting of Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton in the role of The Ancient One, Doctor Strange’s sorcerer mentor. The director of the film, Scott Derrickson has tried to justify his choice in casting a British woman in a role usually depicted in the comics as an Asian man. Audience members may or may not buy into his justification of trying to eliminate negative Asian stereotypes, though viewers should find no problem with Swinton’s performance. In short, Swinton is the kind of actor who can do just about anything, and her turn as the androgynous, ethereal Ancient One just about steals the movie.
Doctor Strange also affords Swinton the rare opportunity to get in on some major action scenes, and it seems like she (along with everyone else in the movie) enjoys the opportunity. Swinton has some of the film’s best moments in her scenes with Cumberbatch, playing the function of moral guide. She too gets in a few zingers, providing the film with some of its most unlikely laughs.
Chiwetel Ejiofer delivered one of the most sensational performances of the year in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. Hollywood hasn’t quite known what to do with him since. How wonderful, then that Doctor Strange finally takes full advantage of Ejiofer’s charisma.
Ejiofer plays Karl Mordo, one of the Ancient One’s other sorcerer pupils who befriends Doctor Strange early on. Fans of Doctor Strange comics will no doubt note that Mordo later becomes one of Strange’s greatest enemies. Mordo, much like Strange, faces a certain amount of uncertainty and moral conflict. Ejiofer shines most in his scenes opposite Cumberbatch—no small feat—and the two actors have a great chemistry together. In terms of Marvel precedent, Modo’s function most resembles that of other gray characters like Loki, though not quite with the psychology that made that character so memorable. Ejiofer, however, does a lot with the role: we always know what his character is thinking and feeling, though we never know what action he will take.
Rachel McAdams finally joins the pantheon of Hollywood stars performing in the MCU. As Doctor Christine Palmer, McAdams brings her usual natural warmth, beauty, and sullen heartbreak to Christine Palmer, doing a lot with very little. Like so many of the other Marvel films, Doctor Strange doesn’t quite know what to do with Palmer beyond using her as a figure of Strange’s affections, and providing some needed assistance when the hero almost gets himself killed. Nevertheless, McAdams throws herself into the part, and she and Cumberbatch have a believable chemistry together.
Comic fans will recognized Christine Palmer as one of three characters who take on the role of Night Nurse. The short-lived Night Nurse comic series followed three normal nurses who worked nights at a hospital, foiling villains and saving lives. Another prominent Night Nurse is the MCU is Claire Temple from Daredevil. While MCU head Kevin Feige has denied that Palmer is Night Nurse in Doctor Strange, but admits that it's possible she could take on the role in the future.
Watching the film should raise the question in the minds of fans: what if McAdams had taken the role of Sue Storm in 2005’s Fantastic Four, or in Superman Returns? She proves herself more than capable here, but what if she had a bigger role?
The aptly-named Benedict Wong steps into the monastic garb of Wong, guardian of the Ancient One’s library. Much as the Ancient One has attracted negative criticism for propagating Asian stereotypes in the comics, so has Wong—usually portrayed as a type of butler to Strange. The film changes up their relationship to give Wong a purpose beyond making tea for the title character, and to give him a bit more depth. Wong’s Wong sees through Strange’s arrogance, and the two, along with Mordo, build a genuine camaraderie together. The movie allows Wong to get in on the action, as well as the humor: he gets some of the biggest laughs in the movie.
If anything, the film understates Wong’s presence throughout most of the runtime. Derrickson has promised that the role will expand in later films to become one of vital function. The Marvel films have done a great job expanding incidental characters—Falcon, JARVIS/Vision, Bucky—into more interesting and meaty parts. Wong delivers an effective performance here, and deserves no less.
The menacing Mads Mikkelsen steps into the role of the villainous Kaecilius, a renegade student of the Ancient One. This charismatic Danish actor has played well-known villains like Le Chiffre in the James Bond film Casino Royale and Hannibal Lecter in the acclaimed TV series Hannibal. Between Doctor Strange and the upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, it's been a big 2016 for Mikkelsen in supporting roles.
Though he doesn't have the most prominent role in the film, Mikkelsen has a good deal of charisma, and always makes his screen time interesting. Kaecilius is less than prominent character in the comic books as well, existing primarily in service of the more important villain, Baron Mordo. The movie doesn't provide any background or layers to the character beyond giving Strange someone to battle with. Like Swinton though, Mikkelsen makes the most of his fight scenes, and his unique presence does make him compelling to watch, even if the movie doesn’t provide a good reason why.
The Marvel movies have gone to great lengths to avoid introducing most of its galactic deities in the movies thus far. Galactus, Eternity, the High Evolutionary—all have gone unmentioned, either due to rights issues, or because of fears on the part of Marvel/Disney that presenting superheroes battling gods will upset the religious right. Heck, even Thanos—though he appeared in The Avengers and has since been played by acclaimed actor Josh Brolin—has barely had any screentime!
Doctor Strange introduces the cosmic entity known as Dormammu. As in the comics, Dormammu is a sort of sentient evil force, able to traverse multiple universes, timelines and planets with his dark magic. The film uses him as both a character and a mystic force; a sort of counterpoint to the good magic of Strange. In design he resembles something akin to the Master Control Program in Tron, though realized with some fine special effects that make him look like a fevered nightmare at a blacklight party. He also provides Strange with one of the movie’s most inventive—and funniest—choices… but more on that in a moment.
As Doctor Strange marks the first appearance of the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the movie follows the usual Marvel choice to begin with an origin story. As in the comics, Doctor Stephen Strange has become one of the world’s leading surgeons—and one of the most arrogant. In one of the movie’s best sequences, an automobile accident destroys the nerves in Strange’s hands, leaving him unable to perform surgery. After medicine fails to yield a cure, Strange sets out to Katmandu in search of a fabled sorcerer whose magic can offer him the chance to heal. There Strange first encounters the Ancient One, and begins his training in the magical arts. As a quick study, Strange’s powers grow in strength, but the forces of evil are growing stronger as well. What follows is as entertaining an origin story as we've recently seen in theaters, particularly from Marvel studios, with Doctor Strange offering a mix of the familiar and the fresh.
What Doctor Strange has going for it—more than anything else—is a great sense of style. The Marvel films have delighted devoted viewers for almost a decade now, though in terms of a visual aesthetic, the movies tend to run together. Thor featured the fantastic world of Asgard, while Guardians of the Galaxy presented visions of intergalactic slums. Other than those rare exceptions, however, the Marvel movies all seem to take place in a squeaky-clean world populated by pretty people. Doctor Strange commits that sin again, but at least it does so in an interesting way. The movie introduces new environments that fit more with The Shadow or Batman Begins than The Avengers. The far-East setting allows for some fantastic costume and production design which plays like a breath of fresh air. No doubt, as the MCU folds Strange and his cohorts into the over-arching plot, the universe will benefit from some new creativity.
In short, Doctor Strange makes some of the best use of the IMAX 3-D format in recent memory. Director Derrickson makes full use of the magical tone of the film to flood the audience with colorful and often surreal visions. Likewise, the large-image format avoids the trap that ensnares a good number of other action movies (including the majority of the Marvel output). Directors tend to use a hand-held or shaky camera to try and simulate the feeling of a fight. Derrickson, by contrast, lets his camera move with a more elegant trajectory, letting the audience actually watch the action, instead of trying to bludgeon them with it. It helps too that the ornate designs, Eastern architecture and fantastical subject matter provide ample fodder for great images, and the eye-popping effects do the same. Doctor Strange, more than any other Marvel film, deserves to be seen in a theatre with IMAX 3-D!
Speaking of the effects, director Derrickson creates the most visually interesting Marvel film to date. He does so—somewhat ironically—by pillaging the films of another director of comic book fare: Christopher Nolan. Much as Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy introduced a new level of street-smart realism to the genre, so too does Derrickson strive for verisimilitude. Derrickson borrows even more liberally from two other Nolan films—Inception and Interstellar. The former featured some magnificent and surreal action, as Nolan allowed his characters to defy the laws of physics and fold cities on top of themselves. Interstellar offered plenty of stunning intergalactic images of stars, gravity wells and space travel.
Derrickson uses both the galactic flash and gravity-defying stunts in Doctor Strange, albeit to great effect. The look of the picture far outshines everything else about it, such as in a battle scene that chops up London into a series of colliding and intersecting planes. The splendid visual effects give a hypnotic quality to these sequences as well. Doctor Strange might well be the first Marvel movie that inspires fans to drop acid before viewing!
Known as the Eye of Agamotto, this magical amulet allows Strange and his sorcerer companions to mold and shift time, backwards and forwards. Fans of the comic series or movie devotees eagerly anticipating Infinity War will no doubt know that the Eye contains one of the six mystical Infinity Gems. When all six gems are used together (say in... gauntlet form) the wielder can exist simultaneously in all times, though interestingly enough, the comics version of the Eye of Agamotto doesn't include an Infinity Gem. It was created by Agamotto, one of the Vishanti who Strange served in the comics, and is infused with his power.
The Eye plays a vital role in Doctor Strange's fight against evil in the film, but it obviously is also setting the stage for the Infinity Gauntlet's role in Infinity War. Despite this place-setting plot point, the movie still stands on its own two feet. Which brings us to...
Beginning with Iron Man 2, the Marvel movies began to spend portions of each film’s runtime setting up the next movie in the cinematic universe. Earlier this year, Captain America: Civil War fell into the same trap, introducing Spider-Man to the MCU on a story tangent. Even though Tom Holland’s Spider-Man proved one of the film’s highlights, he was somewhat superfluous to the main action.
Doctor Strange manages to avoid teasing the rest of the Marvel canon, at least through most of the film. To his great credit, Derrickson keeps the focus of the film on the main character and his plight rather than stopping for gratuitous cameos. Not only does that choice help with story cohesion, but it also keeps the movie running at a good pace. Doctor Strange manages to pack a lot into its runtime, and all of it feels essential. The bigger MCU picture is saved for...
Even if the plot of Doctor Strange keeps centered on its main character, the movie still manages to sneak in a few “tune in next time” moments in the form of credit codas. That’s smart: moviegoers wanting to accept Doctor Strange on its own terms can get up an leave, while die-hard lovers of the MCU can wait around to see a vision of what lies ahead.
SPOILER WARNING: Doctor Strange features two after-codas; one appears mid-credits, while the other appears after all the titles have run. Some vague spoilers ahead: the first scene features Strange contacting another popular Marvel character, and hints at the fate of another in a forthcoming sequel. The second reveals the fate of two supporting roles in Doctor Strange, setting the stage for the good doctor’s next solo outing. Both fit with the over-all tone of the film, and neither feels too tacked on. They're worth the wait!
Robert Downey, Jr. injected a good deal of snark and humor into his role in the original Iron Man, which no doubt contributed to the film’s enormous success. Marvel upped the level of humor in Guardians of the Galaxy, adding a good deal of pop songs and playing like a near-parody of the other Marvel titles. Though it could have been darker at times, Doctor Strange does earn its big laughs, like a Strange manages to annoy others into doing his bidding, or when a jumpy Doctor Palmer gets spooked by a broom. If only Marvel would allow its directors more freedom of tone and content, the Marvel series might become the greatest in history. As it is, Doctor Strange fits with most of the precedents of the franchise, standing a cut above most of the other recent entries. Doctor Strange is an entertaining and well-crafted entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Will you be seeing this Doctor Strange this weekend? Let us know in the comments!