Having seemingly exhausted the possibilities for Earth-bound battles and even venturing into space with Guardians of The Galaxy, Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme takes centre stage in the dimension hopping and mind bending Doctor Strange. After bringing a 3rd-ringer like Ant-Man to the screen as well as both a sentient tree and raccoon in Guardians, Doctor Strange seems like less of a risk. Its emphasis on mysticism and straight up magic manage to bend the patented Marvel formula enough to bring an element of freshness to an increasingly busy cinematic universe.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn in the lead role continues Marvel’s pitch-perfect casting record, even as viewers may feel a sense of deja-vu when Doctor Stephen Strange is stacked up against the Iron Man, Tony Stark. Both characters are goateed assholes, full of raw ability and unchecked arrogance. Unlike Stark’s billionaire arms manufacturer, Stephen Strange is a world-class neurosurgeon who delights in showing up his professional rivals. Spending money as fast as he can make it, his playboy lifestyle is brought to a screeching halt when he crashes his sportscar, ruining his most valuable asset in the process – his steady hands.
In search of a solution, a despondent Strange journeys to Nepal in search of a place supposedly full of secret healing truths called Kamar-Taj. Saved from a beating by a mysterious benefactor, Strange is eventually inducted into the halls of the monk-like brotherhood and introduced to the wise master the Ancient One (a bald Tilda Swinton, as alien as ever). And in a scene that draws directly from The Matrix‘s red pill journey down the rabbit hole, both Doctor Strange and the audience are thrust into a wild drug trip of myriad universes, each more wild and hallucinogenic than the last.
After an opening that hints at Inception-like multiple worlds folding in on themselves, Doctor Strange‘s other main influence, The Matrix, becomes abundantly clear. There are worse movies to be compared to and Doctor Strange – for all its newness in the context of the Marvel universe – often feels like a heady, candy-coloured combination of both Christopher Nolan and The Wachowskis’ visuals. New York cityscapes twist and turn in M.C. Escher-like impossible configurations as Strange and his enemies wield mystical energy as weapons in kung-fu combat that feels distinctly indebted to the Wachowskis pioneering masterpiece (who themselves stole from a variety of sources like cyberpunk, anime and more). Hell, there’s even a fight where Strange takes on multiple foes in the foyer of a mansion that seems like a near-remake of the same scene from The Matrix Reloaded.
The film rarely takes time to acknowledge these beats or give the audience the chance to do the same, as it has a lot of world-building to accomplish in its two hours. Doctor Strange represents a paradigm shift and a whole new magical realm nestled within the MCU, one in which multiple Sanctums (in New York, London and Hong Kong) are presided over like by benevolent sorcerers like the intense Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and librarian Wong (Benedict Wong). As purveyors of ancient magic and keepers of dangerous knowledge, these sorcerers can even go rogue like Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, adding another villlain to his long list of them), a murderous monk who carries a grudge against the Ancient One and is out to summon an unspeakable evil from the Dark Dimension.
After Doctor Strange’s initial training (including an overwrought beard-shaving scene) the movie essential turns into a race to stop Kaecilius and his faceless minions from bringing about the end times. Thankfully the frequent action scenes are inventive (if overly reliant on some of their influences). Tai chi-ish movements allow the sorcerers to summon rune-like shields and whips, and time, space and even reality is manipulated in what becomes one of the more visually stunning Marvel movies yet. Pro-tip: this is one of the few superhero movies to actually benefit from the use of 3D.
Another clear differentiator is that Marvel finally ponied up for a real composer (prolific Michael Giacchino), resulting in their most distinctive score yet. (Try and remember The Avengers theme or anything other than Guardians‘ pop songs and you’ll likely come up short.)
Coherent themes find their way into the movie as well, as the arrogant Strange has to come to terms with his mortality and limits, learning what it is to become more selfless (shades of Iron Man here as well). If the visuals are a delight, then other elements of the film feel like mere setup for the inevitable sequel. Rachel McAdams, a fine actress, is given little to do as Strange’s former love interest and fellow doctor Christine Palmer, though eagle-eyed comic readers know to expect more heroics from her down the line. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo is also given an arc that feels rushed, though that’s to be expected in a breathless 4-quadrant blockbuster that has to service many masters, the most demanding of which is the continuity of an entire cinematic universe.
As is often the case, the moments that stand on their own are the strongest. When Doctor Strange tumbles through kaleidoscopic dimensions – expanding his consciousness and taking the audience on a ride – the movie soars. When we’re reminded that Strange’s powerful amulet also happens to be an Infinity Stone (the connective tissue between Marvel movies), the magic fades a bit as the curtain is drawn back. In the end Doctor Strange isn’t a gamble at all as Marvel grows increasingly confident with each success. It’s become clear that the house always wins.
Doctor Strange (2016)
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Runtime: 115 minutes