Doctor Strange is a masterful entry in the seemingly endless Marvel Cinematic Universe. Long on imagination, fun, and interpersonal drama, director Scott Derrickson’s ethereal adventure also warps enough space-time to terrify Stephen Hawking. It’s a surprisingly nuanced morality tale about the dangers of arrogance and fear that feels appropriate for this particular election season. Not all of the action set pieces work, but the quirky energy and strong performances are more than enough to cover any botched spells. Audiences may flock to Doctor Strange for the spectacle, but it’s the story that will keep them coming back.
The brilliant neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) might not be proper royalty, but he’s certainly the master of his domain. He handpicks the most interesting surgical patients while shying away from the ‘incurables’. His operating suite is a cathedral to perfection in which his own colleagues are unfit to worship. Strange’s only ally is a talented emergency room surgeon named Christine (Rachel McAdams), who obviously carries a torch for him against her better judgment.
But life has a way of humbling kings. After a fiery crash leaves Strange with nerve damage in both hands, the once brilliant surgeon joins the ranks of incurables. A desperate pilgrimage leads him to a slum in Kathmandu (“Like the Bob Seger song?”), where he implores a Supreme Sorcerer known only as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) to heal him. There, he’s trained to cast spells and conjure dimensional portals by a righteous man named Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who fears that the arrogant Strange will succumb to the same temptations that corrupted his former pupil, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). Once a principled sorcerer, Kaecilius now serves the evil forces which seek to swallow the Earth into the Dark Dimension, which would be a major bummer for humanity.
Yes, there’s a ton of spiritual mumbo jumbo propping up the plot lines in Doctor Strange. There are ancient manuscripts, magical amulets, and astral projections slugging it out in a New York City hospital. It’s all perfectly delightful nonsense that dovetails nicely with the equally ludicrous physical realm of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It’s a credit to Marvel Studios that they enlisted Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver Us from Evil) to helm this decidedly dark story about witches and malevolent deities. Derrickson is a veteran spookmeister who understands the intricacies of mood and hocus pocus. He and his writers weave this darkness into a grand adventure that never feels ponderous or depressing. Some of the film’s finest moments, including the Doctor’s discovery of his iconic cloak, are a perfect synthesis of humor, mysticism, and action.
Cumberbatch was born to play Strange. He embodies the spirit of arrogance and vulnerability that makes this inherently unlikeable jerk feel like a worthwhile reclamation project. He’s also exceptional as both an action hero and a cerebral guru. After Strange tastes murder for the first time by killing one of Kaecilius’s henchmen, you believe that his disgust is genuine. A platitude like, “I didn’t sign up to kill people” might not work in most movies, but it works here because Cumberbatch is so damn good.
In fact, almost everything in Doctor Strange is pretty damn good, due in large part to a brilliant script. Unlike many origin stories, the drama that creates the superhero is seamlessly blended into the overarching plot. As Strange grows as a sorcerer and matures as a man, his fight with Kaecilius intensifies accordingly. Their conflict isn’t simply ‘tacked on’ as an excuse for people to punch one another during a grand finale (see: Doomsday in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice). The result is an uncommonly satisfying and refreshing finale. Less spectacle and more strategy, Strange uses his intellect to defeat and humiliate his opponents, which makes it doubly entertaining.
It’s also a story that isn’t afraid to tackle the grey areas of morality. Doctor Strange and The Ancient One aren’t above bending the rules (and several thousand New York skyscrapers) to defeat their enemies; a fact that doesn’t sit well with the stalwart Mordo. Their philosophical arguments frame the challenging supposition that you must sometimes choose the lesser of two evils in order to avoid ultimate catastrophe.
The largest misstep made by Derrickson is sometimes clumsy use of CGI to create the mind bending action set pieces. This includes the film’s centerpiece action sequence inside of the Mirror Dimension. Actions here don’t impact the outside world, which renders Newtonian physics a moot point. The creativity and world building here is impressive, but the final product is a confusing mess of folding buildings, flying debris, and flailing bodies. Basically, it’s Inception on steroids.
Action deficiencies aside, Doctor Strange is an amazing sight to behold, and arguably the strongest overall entry in the Marvel canon. The characters are dynamic, the story is compelling, and there are plenty of memorable scenes to capture the imagination. There’s also a spirit of fun and invention that perfectly complements the darkness churning at its core. As both a standalone film and an introduction to Marvel’s mystical realm, Doctor Strange succeeds on almost every level.