House meets Inception meets Iron Man in a special effects bonanza that sorts out Stephen Strange’s mystical origin story for the silver screen as he goes from world-renowned surgeon to universally known sorcerer.
As one of the Avengers most powerful members, Dr. Strange exists in the comics as Earth’s protector against threats that transcend the physical. Wielding the Eye of Agamotto, Strange basically has a limitless array of powers at his disposal to go along with his masterful intellect.
In his cinematic debut, Strange is more or less the same character — changes were made to make him fit in line with the impending Infinity War. We’re introduced to the character at the height of his arrogance as he pokes fun at public health care, sorts through a drawer full of high-end watches to fit his tux for a speaking engagement, and handpicks his next surgery case.
A strange x-ray keeps his attention too long while he speeds along a coastal cliff in his Lamborghini. He sideswipes another vehicle which sends him spinning through the air and down the face of the cliff until the car face plants into a watery ditch. Strange wakes up in a public hospital with his hands stitched up and filled with pins. He doesn’t need a second opinion to tell him he will never perform another surgery again.
Devastated and afraid of losing the life he knew, Strange searches obsessively for a cure. He learns of a patient who miraculously regained the use of his limbs which prompts the desperate doctor to spend his last dime on a flight to Kamar-Taj in Nepal to seek the aid of the Ancient One.
The rest of the movie follows a major thematic element — one of new possibilities — that fills the current Marvel Cinematic Universe with an infinite number of dimensions and threats. Plot points create a huge sense of scale and a broadening scope as Strange learns about relics, dark rituals, and a frightening dimension of eternal life that’s more like unending death.
For the cinematic universe as a whole, it means so much more. The reveal of the Eye of Agamotto as the time gem makes this movie a must-see for fans who want to stay up to date with things Thanos. And the Dark Dimension with its dangers reveals a villain who is quite immense and one who puts Thanos and his universe-ruling schemes to shame for being too small a goal.
For the studio, it opens the door to a multiverse of potential. Anyone wondering what’s on the horizon past the Infinity War storyline need only consider the possibility of an Ultimate Universe or a Secret Wars-like splintering that will give the studio a chance at recasting characters once current contracts run out. It’s like having our cake and eating it too — we get to keep our old MCU movies and enjoy the newer ones featuring actors who were learning how to tie their shoes while we were watching Downey Jr., Hemsworth, and Evans set the bar.
But back to the movie — Strange learns as much as he can until the Ancient One’s student-gone-bad Kaecilius gathers enough knowledge to open a communication line to the Dark Dimension. Gaining immense power and hatching a plan to deliver Earth to that dimension, Kaecilius takes out the Earth’s protective Sanctums, one by one. It then becomes Dr. Strange’s mission to use his powers for good, abandoning his selfish desire to heal himself and choosing a path that will save the lives of so many others.
Actor Benedict Cumberbatch is the perfect choice for Strange, inserting loads of gravitas into the character with bits of wit and snark. When Strange gives the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) a piece of his mind when they first meet, Cumberbatch channels the best of Hugh Laurie’s House — his guttural inflection increasing in speed and viciousness that would level anyone other than an ancient one. The mentor, old enough and obviously tired of these kinds of tirades, sends Strange, kicking and screaming, on a trip through the astral planes with a flick on the forehead. After he comes crashing back down, his schema of the world broken, he begs, “Teach me!”
Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Baron Mordo has a tough job filling a role that, in a worst-case scenario, would have him standing in Strange’s shadow. But Ejiofor gives Mordo the conviction the character needs as Mordo turns from stalwart defender into Strange’s self-righteous arch-nemesis. Likewise, Mads Mikkelsen gives us a compelling main villain in his portrayal of Kaecilius with a set of deep-rooted motivations that don’t seem to be thrown together and taken for granted. The biggest issue with the Marvel movies has been its villains — most of them are one and done cardboard cutouts who are but shades of their comic counterparts. Kaecilius, as misguided as he is, and Strange are two sides of the same coin, and Mikkelsen makes the villain multi-dimensional and resolute.
Apart from the casting and verbal scripting, the film’s most front and center star is the visual effects. Beautifully rendered and dazzling to behold, Doctor Strange the movie is a great example of what can be realized with the film medium as opposed to what can be shown on a comic panel or page. Anyone thinking of sitting this one out should not pass up the opportunity to see it in a theater, and I would highly recommend those who haven’t seen the movie and those who haven’t seen it in 3D to watch it on an IMAX screen in 3D.
From here, Marvel moves back to space for Guardians of the Galaxy 2 before bringing Spider-Man home and then revisiting Thor in Asgard. Guardians took the MCU to space — Thor: The Dark World had some space sci-fi moments, but it was largely contained planetside — and it was a breath of fresh air. Ant-Man took us on a journey on a molecular level, and it’s Doctor Strange who brings magic to the universe. It’s at once an origin story, a special effects treat, and another brilliant cog spinning in the Infinity War storyline.
But most importantly, it’s a great standalone movie that lives up to its title. While its influences are easy to spot, it doesn’t feel derivative or like a poor imitation. Instead, it takes advantage of paths traveled and raises itself up to new heights while carrying an audience’s attention. It’s one of the MCU’s best offerings, I wouldn’t be surprised hear from anyone that Dr. Strange is their favorite character.