It’s not something I say lightly, but I must declare that Doctor Strange may be Marvel Studios’ most astonishingly brilliant movie to date! Not their overall best movie necessarily, but certainly one of their smartest and most inspired. Functioning as a perfect marriage between high fantasy and hard science, the debut of the latest big screen superhero to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is yet another fresh and interesting upending of convention, while at the same time preserving the humour, heart and character that has consistently made almost all of Marvel Studios’ movies such winners to date!
By this point, the origin story formula for Marvel’s movies is fairly apparent; Get a charismatic and likable actor, in this case, Benedict Cumberbatch, to portray an established Marvel personality, then have that personality enter the MCU either at the top of their game or the bottom of their luck, before suffering a great hardship that forces them to learn humility and respect if the former, and courage and determination if the latter, for the increasingly foreign world around them. What started simply in 2008’s superhero movie masterpiece, Iron Man has now benefited from eight years of gradual MCU expansion, allowing Doctor Strange to function as a pleasantly reliable package, even within a new supernatural corner of the MCU that seems so unnatural and frightening. Some of the Marvel Studios hiccups are present here and there, in this case some recycled story elements and another under-developed villain, but Doctor Strange is nonetheless an early frontrunner for one of this November’s best movies overall, and another highly entertaining, visually arresting home run for Marvel’s movie catalogue!
It’s kind of surprising that Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark didn’t make even a passing appearance in Doctor Strange, since the character of Stephen Strange is very similar to the ever-beloved big screen Iron Man of the MCU. Being another brilliant, but arrogant genius with more money than charm, though in this case being a neurosurgeon instead of a tech mogul, Strange’s initial journey to heroism is one that echoes Tony Stark’s most blatantly. Tony Stark however still operated on a recognizable plane of exaggerated reality, while Strange finds himself purely in the realm of the supernatural and the unbelievable, forced to try and find greater meaning in a world that he no longer understands.
Despite not incorporating any other Marvel personalities during its main events, Doctor Strange feels like it effectively capitalizes on the wider MCU that’s come before, and triumphantly declares that we still haven’t even seen the weirdest and most surreal that the MCU truly has to offer. Strange may be the Sorcerer Supreme in Marvel Comics lore, but here, he’s a humbled everyman, taking the audience into a strange new reality that is rooted in actual metaphysics, string theory and quantum mechanics, ingeniously taking the first uneasy steps through places that seem so unreal, and yet feel just scientific and credible enough to feel like they could be real. You could almost reach out and touch the experiences of Stephen Strange as he makes the journey from self-indulgent jerk to selfless do-gooder, but not quite to the point where it ruins the illusion. That constant intrigue is reflected well through a character that audiences will have a surprisingly easy time rooting for and walking in the shoes of, even as he begins, much like Tony Stark did in 2008, by being seemingly irredeemable.
Cumberbatch, naturally, is an effectively captivating and superb new addition to the MCU’s ranks, one with tons of promise for future movies both solo and crossover, but the other major standout performance in the movie is that of Tilda Swinton, the stoic, steadfast and surprisingly vulnerable big screen take on Strange’s comic book mentor, The Ancient One. Despite being a Tibetan man in Marvel Comics lore, The Ancient One is a bald-headed Celtic woman in the MCU, and despite the controversy over the supposed white-washing of the part, Swinton feels like a natural fit for this role.
Initially beginning as the expected wise and all-powerful overseer that takes Strange on a journey he could never have imagined, secrets eventually come to light that re-interpret The Ancient One’s motives, and further the next great step in Strange coming into his own as a hero. The Ancient One initially refuses to share her secrets with Strange too, believing him too arrogant and closed-minded to truly accept the world beyond our perceived reality, but the mentor/student relationship ends up working very well precisely because Strange is a cynic, and a man of hard, rigid science. Just as Strange is gradually won over by The Ancient One, the audience is won over as well, opening their own minds to the potential of a higher reality as Strange is forced to do the same.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is also among the movie’s finest performers in the role of Mordo, known as Baron Mordo in Marvel Comics lore, the right-hand sorcerer of The Ancient One, and arguably her finest student, who serves as both a mentor and rival to Strange throughout the movie. Like The Ancient One, Mordo initially seems all-knowing and easy to establish as an intellectually impenetrable wizard of great power, but as his own psychology and vulnerabilities gradually creep out, Mordo becomes something else entirely as the movie goes on. Despite being a consistent ally to Strange throughout this movie for the most part, something darker and more uneasy seethes underneath Mordo’s wise, but rigid teachings. Mordo has the early makings of a complex and tragic spellcaster, one that is forced to re-interpret his own reality with the coming of Strange, and as a character that will inevitably be permanently tied to Strange’s own fate in the MCU going forward, as longtime Marvel fans can definitely anticipate. If handled right, Mordo could very well be the next Loki for the MCU, having more than a few traits and history in common with Thor’s corrupted brother.
It is a shame though that this movie’s main villain, Kaecilius, played by Mads Mikkelsen, is another MCU throwaway villain that feels like a mere inconvenience on the path of our hero’s journey. To be fair, Kaecilius is a step up from shallow foes like Guardians of the Galaxy’s Ronan the Accuser or Ant-Man’s Yellowjacket, not just because of Mikkelsen’s strong performance, but because an attempt is actually made to give him and his followers more complex motivations beyond money or power. Kaecilius is still dwarfed by Loki, Ultron and the especially fantastic villains of Marvel’s Netflix shows so far, but he’s at least an enjoyable and somewhat thought-provoking enemy that is at least a bit more memorable than the average MCU origin movie baddie, even if he’ll likely be outdone by the antagonist of this movie’s seemingly inevitable sequel. There is another villainous presence in Doctor Strange that will get Marvel fans fairly excited in the movie’s climax as well, but I won’t spoil it, beyond saying that this personality’s introduction is clever, if a tad disappointingly short-lived.
Amazingly, Strange never fully loses his link to the mundane human world as well, and this is largely thanks to Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer, a fellow doctor at Strange’s hospital, who is also one of the women that takes up the identity of underground superhero patcher-upper, Night Nurse in Marvel Comics lore. Palmer doesn’t play an enormous role in the movie, but she does appear just often enough to maintain a human voice amidst all of the weirdness. Palmer is always kept separate from Strange’s world for the most part, but she’s never kept separate from the spirit of his character, providing an outside perspective beyond the complex, and existing in the realm of simple human connection. She’s the one carrying Strange’s heart, not just because of their former romantic history, but because, as with Tony Stark’s flame, Pepper Potts, Palmer provides love where Strange is unable to, motivating him to be a better man beyond the costume and the fighting of evil. That voice is essential as well, because, as with all of the best superhero movies and TV shows, the strange journey is merely a garnish to a movie that is still very much about a person before anything else, and how that person suffered a great hardship to be taken apart and made whole again.
Like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor, Doctor Strange feels like an especially special and memorable Marvel movie, because it’s one of those Marvel movies that will never have you looking at the MCU the same way again after you’ve seen it. It’s quite satisfying, since 2016 seems to be a year where too much of the moviegoing peanut gallery seems especially convinced that they’ve seen all of the comic book tricks, and superhero movies need to recede into the shadows, since we’ve already seen everything that they have to offer. Much like 20th Century Fox’s Deadpool from this past February though, Doctor Strange feels like a direct, triumphant challenge to the superhero movie naysayers, turning their cynical expectations for complacency against them by showing with great impact and relentless entertainment just how little they and we understand about so many fantastic corners of the MCU that still remain unseen.
As I said, Doctor Strange sometimes recycles a few repeated story beats from Marvel origin movies like Iron Man, Thor and Ant-Man most notably, but it never comes off as lazy or half-baked. Even as we witness simply the latest journey of a man who starts out made, becomes unmade, and remakes himself into something amazing and unexpected, Doctor Strange is nonetheless overflowing with creativity, intelligence and inspiration on account of how well it constructs its outlandish world of spellcasting, alternate dimensions and spooky spirits. What begins as the simple plight of an arrogant neurosurgeon who suffers nerve damage in his gifted hands from a car accident, and must travel to a far corner of the world to seek out a higher form of understanding than what he learned in medical school, eventually unfolds into an incredible journey that creates a world seemingly impossible to fully grasp, yet always appealing to try and grasp.
It’s truly incredible how well Doctor Strange walks so many fine lines with its storytelling, but it’s with no exaggeration that I claim that this is Marvel’s most brilliant and groundbreaking solo origin movie since the original Iron Man from 2008! Doctor Strange is simultaneously inconceivably fantastical, yet undeniably scientific. It’s both unmistakably human, yet intriguingly superhuman. For every weird and unnatural element, there’s something ever so slightly tethering it to our own modern sensibilities and understanding of the world. It’s a journey with some familiar parts, but none that feel truly uninteresting, reminding audiences of how many sectors of the MCU, both physical and personal, still remain uncharted.
(NOTE: The spoiler section, when clicked, discusses a major Marvel character’s appearance in the movie’s climax, as well as a duo of post-credits scenes that foreshadow future movie projects for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It also addresses any connection that the movie may have to other Marvel movies.)
Doctor Strange also possesses two post-credits scenes, with a mid-credits scene detailing Doctor Strange meeting Thor in the Sanctum Sanctorum, as Thor confesses bringing Loki to New York to search for the missing Odin, and asks Strange for his help, building on the conclusion to 2013’s Thor: The Dark World. This seems to serve as a lead-in to next year’s Thor: Ragnarok, suggesting that Doctor Strange may cameo in that movie, or at least be mentioned. Another scene occurs after the credits that shows Mordo stealing energy from another sorcerer, seemingly cementing that he is now becoming a villain, likely to serve as a full-blown enemy to Doctor Strange in potential sequels to this movie.
Scott Derrickson helms Doctor Strange, upholding Marvel Studios’ reputation for hiring left-field directors. Derrickson normally has a writing and directing background almost completely rooted in horror, having written and/or directed movies like Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Deliver Us From Evil, though this sensibility makes him adept at creating a world that is frightening without being off-putting. Derrickson also displays an equal aptitude for a fun, comedic and Marvel-friendly comic book spirit amidst the horror, drama and fantasy throughout the rest of the production, making him another surprisingly ingenious creative choice on the part of Marvel Studios.
As with many of the best Marvel Studios projects, Doctor Strange also represents a great balance across several different genres. There is obviously a considerable degree of fantasy and sci-fi in the movie, but there is also a big dose of comedy, of drama, of romance, and naturally, of horror. Derrickson, as I said, wonderfully walks the line between many different storytelling sensibilities with Doctor Strange, having co-written the movie himself, alongside C. Robert Cargill. Not since Guardians of the Galaxy has there been a Marvel Studios movie that feels this creative and this memorable, even considering the outstanding Captain America: Civil War that hit theatres this past May!
Among the best accomplishments of Derrickson’s direction here though is how effectively he makes a movie where reality itself defies physics and warps beyond perception, yet also makes this feel believable and easy to keep straight. Rather than being a detriment to the action and the exposition, the reality-warping, physics-breaking visuals and choreography is shot in an organic and engaging way, giving Doctor Strange a very unique and creative identity among other Marvel Studios movies or movies in general, and one that represents some truly mind-blowing and revolutionary filmmaking! Even something like Inception kind of seems quaint in comparison to the raw trippiness of Doctor Strange at its most bold, and this is a superhero spectacle that demands to be seen in theatres by just about anyone willing to appreciate it, on the tightness and beauty of its direction and presentation alone!
Michael Giacchino and his expert blockbuster sensibilities provide the musical score to Doctor Strange, and Giacchino subsequently delivers one of his best cinematic soundtracks in a fair while here! Marvel even had Giacchino compose a new Marvel Studios logo fanfare that is introduced alongside an updated logo with this movie, and it’s a very satisfying one. In the movie itself though, Giacchino’s soundtrack manages to effortlessly keep pace with the unpredictability of the visuals and character journey, toeing the line between surreal, harrowing, grounded and triumphant with aplomb. It’s simply far and away the best Doctor Strange movie soundtrack that one could imagine, and this is one that Marvel fans especially will likely want to download and own for themselves!
The rest of the movie’s soundtrack and audio is equally impressive, and is best enjoyed in IMAX and other such premium formats. As with the musical score, the rest of the audio in Doctor Strange nicely keeps pace with the engaging, unpredictable presentation, with the reality shifting still conveying an incredible sense of power, as the fragments of matter and geometry of obstacles bounce, crunch and roll off of each other, waving, pulsing and becoming the very weapons that the sorcerers wield against one another. It’s not easy to capture a believable sense of spellcasters fighting with the fabric of reality itself, but the audio in Doctor Strange wonderfully rises to the task, giving its magic as much incredible potency as its action!
Marvel Studios movies have consistently raised the bar for high-quality action and visuals on the big screen, and as expected, Doctor Strange continues to deliver another incredible new visual standard. The awe-inspiring polish behind the movie’s surreal, reality-bending madness is something that demands to be experienced, as this movie contains some of the best visual directing and effects in Marvel Studios’ history to date! You’ll never look at superhero movies the same way again after experiencing Doctor Strange, which is a masterwork of abstract physics working in tandem with blockbuster thrills, creating a discernable, yet consistently surprising landscape of incredible set pieces and amazing, surprisingly scientific sorcery. It’s difficult to describe beyond being a purely excellent visual showcase in every way, and this has Doctor Strange on track to potentially be the most visually interesting, ambitious and impressive movie of the entire year!
On top of being one of the best raw visual showcases in Marvel Studios history to date, Doctor Strange also gets even better when you experience it in 3D, and especially IMAX 3D. My own screening of the movie was in IMAX 3D, and it definitely added even more appeal to the already breathtaking visuals. The addition of 3D creates a fantastic added sense of depth and distance, which makes the reality-bending feel much more gripping and hair-raising, and easily immerses audiences into the experience in a way that the 2D cut won’t manage quite as effectively. Similarly, this is a movie that is genuinely worth paying for a pricier IMAX 3D ticket if you have that option. An IMAX theatre enhances the 3D even further, and provides a lot of added screen real estate, along with the enhanced projection and sound, to make the movie’s astonishing set pieces and surreal action sequences feel even more lifelike, detailed and engrossing. Best of all is that about an hour of Doctor Strange’s footage was shot with IMAX cameras, which leaves the IMAX 3D cut as by far the ideal way to experience Doctor Strange in theatres, and this is a movie that must be seen in theatres by all and sundry! Believe me, it’s worth every penny!
Doctor Strange beats the odds and continues to make the latest Marvel Studios origin story another fresh and captivating experience, and one that proves that we definitely haven’t seen every trick that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is capable of pulling off! It’s too bad that not every lingering shortcoming of many Marvel Studios movies is fully stamped out, since the villain is still a little under-developed (though Kaecilius at least has clearer, more interesting motivations than most Marvel Studios baddies), and there are a few Marvel cliches in the storytelling that are a bit more apparent eight years later. None of that is truly worth dwelling on when you can so easily become awestruck and enamoured in this wonderful new supernatural side of the MCU though, especially when Doctor Strange is so excellently presented and so brilliantly crafted.
Regardless of your present opinion of superhero movies, Doctor Strange simply must be experienced in theatres for its creative presentation and mind-boggling visuals alone. Even amidst the production values though, you’re also getting a movie that clearly has a strong heart and a sharp mind of its own, providing another relatable and inspiring heroic journey for its titular personality, and one that also provides some truly potent, very human drama, along with the same witty, often surprisingly hilarious humour that Marvel Studios movies have always done so well. All in all, this is a fantastic movie that’s worthy of the Sorcerer Supreme, and I can’t wait to see where Marvel Studios takes the good doctor next!
- Excellent cast complements a clever, memorable plot
- Standout direction and soundtrack enhance the ambitious presentation
- Surreal, reality-bending visual presentation that raises the bar for filmmaking
- Lingering Marvel Studios hiccups, namely a shallow villain, are still present