Let’s get this out of the way. I loved Doctor Strange. It represents another fascinating step forward for Marvel Studios.
Apart from some basics, like knowing the title character was referred to as the Sorcerer Supreme, that this was a magic-focused story, and that Strange was originally a surgeon who lost his ability to operate from a car accident, I knew little of the source material for this movie.
And that definitely worked in my favor, because it allowed me to be a little less informed to the plot of a Marvel movie than I normally am. I avoid spoilers like the plague but this is the first Marvel movie that I’ve watched since The Winter Soldier where I was genuinely unsure of where the story was going.
Which brings me to one of the reasons that this is possibly Marvel’s best movie to date: this doesn’t feel like any Marvel movie or superhero movie that I have ever seen before. It’s all there in the opening, when we witness the Ancient One and Kaecilius battle. What starts out as an interesting but comprehensible heist/murder combo becomes an incredible action sequence where buildings kaleidoscope into different shapes, and characters defy gravity while casting spells. And that’s just the opening scene.
Afterwards, we are introduced to the arrogant surgeon, Stephen Strange, and his colleague Christine Palmer. Both Cumberbatch and McAdams establish their characters well, but McAdams isn’t given as much to do as I’d hoped. She’s not given nothing, mind you. Christine doesn’t pine for Strange at all, and she saves multiple lives in the movie. But I definitely look forward to her getting more screentime in the sequel. As for Cumberbatch, he more than manages to make Strange’s arrogance undeniable, yet fun to watch.
That is, until a car accident wrecks his hands.
After that, he is a mess, and a much more overt asshole. One of the best scenes in the movie is where Christine visits him in his apartment, weeks after the accident and Strange’s multiple attempts to fix his hands. Strange doesn’t hesitate to say anything and everything he can to hurt Christine. There is no moment of regret after she leaves, no melodramatic tears from either. Just anger from Strange and disappointment from Christine. It is brutal.
Strange’s obsessive journey to regain the full use of his hands leads him to a place called Kamar-Taj. Taken in by Mordo (played by the always-great Chiwetel Ejiofor), Strange is introduced to the Ancient One (played by the we-are-not-worthy-of-her Tilda Swinton). Quickly seeing through Strange’s selfishness, the Ancient One rejects Strange’s request to learn more about her and Mordo’s power.
That is, after she shows Strange an absolute mind-fuck of a trip between multiple dimensions and planes of existence. I don’t think that words can do this sequence justice, but imagine the last 10 minutes of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (a great film that I’ll bring up again soon), the Toccata and Fugue segment of Fantasia, and whatever you imagine happens when you take LSD combined into a two-minute guide to the universe. Again, I’m not doing this sequence justice but it is worth the price of admission alone.
Strange is eventually admitted into Kamar-Taj and rapidly learns the mystical arts. He advances quickly and learns of Kaecilius, the film’s villain. Kaecilius is a former follower of the Ancient One who we later find out has decided to end our world by bringing it into the Dark Dimension. However, his goal isn’t to destroy life on our world, but to make it immortal.
This is what I love most about Doctor Strange. Death is the movie’s key theme. It’s the first thing that I thought about when I finished watching it. So much of this movie and its characters revolve around interpretations of and reactions to death.
When the Ancient One is about to face her impending death, she and Strange share a moment (literally, since they are in their astral forms watching time pass at a slower rate than normal) where despite her acceptance of death, the Ancient One is still afraid of it.
Kaecilius’ whole motivation is to escape death by bringing our world into a place free from the concept of time, and the possibility of death.
Strange’s obsession with regaining his skill as a surgeon shows that he considers himself just as good as dead if he isn’t doing what he does best.
And a key stepping stone in Strange’s journey from arrogant to heroic is because of death.
Specifically, the death of one of Kaecilius’ followers after an intense, out-of-body confrontation between Strange and the follower. It is Strange’s guilt towards causing this death that not only highlights an important philosophical difference between him and Mordo (Mordo believes in killing your enemies, Strange does not), but also shows Strange beginning to understand the stakes of the conflict he is now involved in.
The fact that the movie doesn’t sugar-coat Strange’s arrogance helps this moment immensely. It not only allows Marvel to give one of its new heroes some truly despicable moments (re: apartment scene), but also their most well-defined transformative arc since we met Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark.
When the final confrontation between Strange and Dormammu, the Lord of the Dark Dimension occurs, Strange defeats the all-powerful being not by trying to kill it with force or destruction, but by introducing the concept of time. And using time to basically annoy Dormammu into not taking over our world, which I found to be an appropriately clever (and hilarious) finale.
The focus on death reminded me of The Fountain, because it’s the only other movie I’ve seen that discusses death as an ending, but not as something to be avoided. Both Strange and The Fountain present death as a necessary part of life, because without a limit or an ending, life would have no meaning.
I myself still find the idea of death terrifying and incomprehensible, but I’m oddly comforted by a superhero movie like Doctor Strange actually attempting to have a less-than-bleak discussion about death. Frankly, a blockbuster that maturely discusses death at all is an achievement and a rarity.
There are so many things I loved about this movie that I haven’t covered.
Michael Giacchino has finally given the MCU its first great score since Alan Silvestri’s contributions to the first Captain America and Avengers movies.
This is the second movie in a row that Marvel has given us a compelling and understandable villain.
The Cloak of Levitation.
And every setpiece of this movie is unique and unlike anything that’s been done in a blockbuster movie.
I can’t wait to watch this movie again. I have a feeling I’ll find more to love about it.
– Regarding the whitewashing that the movie is guilty of, it is without a doubt a problem in Hollywood that has to be addressed more. I recommend reading this interview with Doctor Strange‘s director