Open Your Eye.
If Marvel Studios is good at anything, it’s delivering a consistent level of quality. Dr. Strange, the newest character and franchise to be added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is an intricately-woven psychedelic trip into the mystical side of the Avengers’ world, and an entryway into the multiverse itself. While the plot sticks loyally to the tried-and-true Marvel formula, Benedict Cumberbatch’s egocentric surgeon-turned-sorcerer is a different take on the typical Marvel hero, and the visual spectacle throughout the film is worth the price of admission alone.
The plot follows the story of Dr. Stephen Strange, a neurosurgeon whose work and career has helped save thousands of lives; the only problem is, he knows it. Strange is a very arrogant man, the smartest man in the room and one who doesn’t shy away from letting everybody know it. While his work inspires awe and respect from his peers, it’s hard to genuinely like a person who’s so full of themselves.
Self-importance aside, Strange is still a good-natured person. He dedicates his life to the work of medicine and healing, even going so far as to drive around at night as a sort of specialty on-call ambulance, just in a Lamborghini instead. As with most heroes, he suffers an ill-fated accident and injures his hands beyond repair, putting an end to his days of surgery.
Strange’s search for healing brings him to an unassuming monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, where he meets the Ancient One (played by Tilda Swinton). While unfortunately the white-washing of the character feels incredibly obvious and unnecessary, Swinton does deliver a solid performance as the ever-lasting leader of the sorcerer defenders of Earth. Director Scott Derrickson’s decision to have a woman play the role of the Ancient One is a welcomed move, the lack of an ethnically-authentic actor behind the role makes it feel like a two steps forward, one step back sort of situation.
Hollywood racism aside, the moment Strange’s mind is blown wide open by the Ancient One, the rest of the movie becomes an absolute trip. Astral projections, wormholes, mirror dimensions, multiverse travel — Dr. Strange might just be the most visually-stunning superhero film ever. It’s a kaleidoscope of cinematography, like Inception on steroids. The fight scenes in particular are incredible, as buildings fold in on one another and the material world itself contorts and reshapes at the will of sorcerers. The most impressive feat is how deliberate it all feels; while it’s overwhelming in its absurdity, it’s (relatively) easy to follow along with the action. Just don’t blink.
Another aspect of Dr. Strange that I was fairly impressed with was Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius. Marvel films are a bit notorious in my opinion of having simple, one-dimensional villains. Kaecilius provides a more interesting antagonist; he’s unquestionably a bad guy, but his motivations leave room for Strange, and the audience, to question certain established premises. He’s a constant reminder of the film’s premise that not everything is as it seems.
Rachel McAdams’s Christine Palmer is a great anchor for the audience, as she plays Strange’s go-to surgical assistant and close (if not only) friend. It’s not hard to wind up feeling more for Christine than Strange in the beginning of the film, and when Strange introduces her to his newfound mystical powers, her reaction is the perfect metaphor for the audience: “What the hell is going on, nevermind let’s go with it.”
Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a very likable performance as Mordo, the stubborn and stout-hearted warrior who vehemently believes in the defense of the Earth and of the natural order of the universe. He helps guide Strange through his learning of the mystical arts, and has some great fight choreography with those magical boots of his.
Benedict Wong, who plays the mystical librarian Wong (is that racist?), is a great comedic relief. His stone-like nature that slowly gives way to Strange’s particular brand of “humor” is always entertaining, and he has some of the best lines in the film. Funny as he is, however, the real scene-stealer is the Cloak of Levitation, which feels like Aladdin’s magic carpet in how it interacts with Strange and his attackers. I never thought I’d be laughing out loud at an angry piece of fabric in a Marvel movie.
While the cast, visual fidelity, and Cloak of Levitation (yes, it earned its own mention) make Dr. Strange a highly entertaining experience, the narrative doesn’t really deviate from the films that have come before. The pacing was fantastic, as the filmmakers keep a nice brisk pace throughout the whole movie, but it’s hard not to get that “I’ve seen this before” feeling when watching Kaecilius enact his evil plan. Being the 14th film in the MCU, I was hoping Dr. Strange would expand not only my mind, but Marvel’s storytelling formula.
That being said, while the isolated plot is far from unique, the MCU’s entrance into the multiverse could have limitless possibilities. There’s an entire dimension that is sentient — what does that say about God? While I’m sure religion has taken plenty of hits with superheroes flying around saving the world from an alien invasion, access to the multiverse could allow our heroes to interact with God. Perhaps God is just a being in one particular dimension, or perhaps God permeates throughout all dimensions, or even beyond them. Never before has Marvel been able to explore such spiritual and metaphysical dimensions, and the potential for how Marvel will use this opportunity to impact the established franchise is exciting (although knowing Hollywood, they’ll probably just end up using it to reboot the MCU after Infinity War).
Dr. Strange is an exhilarating, mind-bending experience, and one of the few movies that might actually look better in 3D (I only saw it in standard format). It’s a psychedelic visual feast, and one that opens a lot of doors for possibility within the MCU. While I would have liked to have seen a less formulaic plot, the trippy cinematography and interesting characters make the film yet another successful entry for Marvel. Here’s to seeing what Kevin Feige and co. have up their sleeve when Dr. Strange teams up with the rest of the Avengers.