The History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Chapter 14: ‘Doctor Strange’
In The History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ScreenCrush editor-in-chief Matt Singer looks back at every film in the MCU to date, leading up to the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27. Previous chapters can be found here.
Chapter 14: Doctor Strange
Director: Scott Derrickson
Writers: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Release Date: November 4, 2016
U.S. box office: $232.6 million
Worldwide box office: $677.7 million
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 89 percent
Metacritic score: 72
Letterboxd average grade: 3.4
My Original Review
“Typically Marvel movies have terrific characters and so-so visuals and action. Strange is the opposite; it’s glorious to look at (and the rare blockbuster where the 3D genuinely adds something to the experience) but the people are kind of dull.” - Read more here
What Holds Up
As usual, the unsung heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are the casting directors. Doctor Strange has an outstanding collection of actors, from Benedict Cumberbatch as the title character all the way down to B-movie action guru Scott Adkins in the role of a henchman who gets beaten up by a magic cape.
Curiously, my favorite performance on this viewing was one I described as “an enormously frustrating waste” of its actor’s talents in my first review, and that’s Mads Mikkelsen as the film’s primary villain, Kaecilius. When Doctor Strange first opened in theaters, I wrote that Kaecilius was nothing more than “a mean guy with spooky eyes.” Which is true; he barely gets any backstory, and only really appears in action and special effects sequences. Nonetheless, Mikkelsen invests the role with a ton of intensity. In interviews, he said he took the part because it gave him the opportunity to live “a childhood dream” and make a kung fu movie like his hero Bruce Lee. That passion bleeds through on screen, where all of his magical martial arts movements, which could look very silly if they were performed by a less committed actor, are crisp and strong and imbued with a lot of feeling. Kaecilius is a walking plot device, but he walks with a hell of a lot of swagger.
One of his tricks is accessing a place called the “Mirror Dimension” where a wave of a hand can send the world splintering into a swirl of imagery. I won’t even begin to understand how the Mirror Dimension works (Supposedly nothing that happens in the Mirror Dimension affects our world, but you can also die there?) but it looks mighty cool onscreen. And as directed by Scott Derrickson, Doctor Strange is a visual cut above the standard Marvel fare. When Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is first enlightened about the multiverse by the mysterious sorcerer known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) he’s sent on quite a trip. Later, he squares off with Dormammu (motion captured by Cumberbatch), a god of dark magic who lives inside an interdimensional blacklight poster.
The Doctor Strange comics of the 1960s, written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Steve Ditko, are unique among the Marvel Silver Age canon for their remarkable, psychedelic imagery, and all of Doctor Strange’s finest moments beautifully translate Dikto’s artwork — mind-bending tableaus, bold geometric manifestations of Strange’s powers, a curious fixation on weird finger poses — to the big screen.
What Doesn’t Hold Up
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has not always been generous to its female characters. They often exist solely to facilitate the growth of the male heroes, or to serve as damsels waiting to be rescued. Still, Jane Foster is practically Elizabeth Bennet compared to Rachel McAdams’ Dr. Christine Palmer. When I called Kaecilius “an enormously frustrating waste” of a good actor’s talents? I should have saved that for McAdams.
Like a lot of Doctor Strange, the model for Christine and Steven’s relationship is Iron Man: The co-workers with the feisty relationship that’s full of testy professional vibes and flirty banter. The problem is that Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow have terrific chemistry together in the Iron Man series, and Cumberbatch and McAdams have almost none in Doctor Strange. Granted, they don’t get many opportunities to have chemistry; just a few early scenes together at the hospital where they work, and then a few later in the movie where Strange or one of his mystical allies shows up in need of medical attention and she dutifully patches them up. They don’t even have a scene together after Strange defeats Dormammu to wrap up their plot line, as clear an example as I’ve ever seen of a movie cutting its losses rather than throwing more good money after bad. (The currency in this case is time; more on that in the next section.)
I caught the recycled beats and arcs from Iron Man, Thor, and assorted other Marvel films the first time through, but it wasn’t until this revisit that I took full notice of how heavily Doctor Strange draws inspiration from The Matrix. Both films are about brilliant but naive men who discover a vast world beyond the one they can see with their eyes and then learn to access magic powers to bend the rules of physics with the help of a wise older guru who wants to train them to protect society from the forces of darkness. Both also couch hoighty toighty philosophical discussions about the nature of reality by burying them beneath wall-to wall action (plus Strange features at least one fight, the “astral plane” tussle between Cumberbatch and Adkins, whose bendy, weightless CGI recalls The Matrix Reloaded’s infamous “Burly Brawl.”)
Coolest Foreshadowing of Future Marvel Events
Doctor Strange’s journey from selfish surgeon to selfless sorcerer is all about time. It’s already a central motif of the film — like his drawer of expensive wristwatches, and the broken watch he carries with him on his quest to find the Ancient One — before Strange starts fiddling with the Eye of Agamotto, a mystic relic with the power to control the flow of time. Then, at the end of Doctor Strange, Strange’s ally Wong (Benedict Wong) reveals the Eye is actually the Time Stone, one of the six all-important Infinity Stones that Thanos has been very casually trying to collect over the last six years. (I’ve put more effort into collecting a complete run of Spidey Super Stories than Thanos has put into assembling the Infinity Gauntlet.)
The Time Stone imagery works without knowing what Thanos plans to do with it in Infinity War (maybe he’ll turn back time so it only takes him, like, two and a half weeks to collect all these things). Until then, if you want to explore the idea that each Marvel movie is a reflection of the Infinity Stone at its center, check out ScreenCrush’s ongoing video essay series about that very topic. (Here’s the newest episode about the Time Stone in Doctor Strange:)
Best Marvel Easter Egg
The old Lee/Ditko Doctor Strange comics are a magnificent collection of magical mumbo jumbo. Lee augmented Ditko’s hallucinatory art with fanciful flights of alliteration, particularly in Doctor Strange’s magic incantations (like “By the Hoary Host of Hoggoth!” a phrase that, tragically, Benedict Cumberbatch does not say out loud in the film) and his ancient relics of power. Watch Doctor Strange closely and you’ll spot several of them beyond the obvious ones like the Eye of Agamotto he wears around his neck and the Cloak of Levitation draped across his shoulders. At one point, Strange binds Kaecilius in the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak; during the final battle, Wong wields the unmistakable Wand of Watoomb (which would be the perfect name for a Marvel branded toilet bowl cleaner if the company ever wants to get into the bathroom disinfectant game).
These Easter eggs aren’t dwelled upon, and some of them barely get more than a second or two of screen time. Which is as it should be; those are the extras for the dorks, and the movie doesn’t get bogged down trying to run through Doctor Strange’s entire Wikipedia page.
The “Mirror Dimension” is not a good name for the Mirror Dimension; it’s not really a world that exists inside a mirror. Sometimes its landscape looks like broken glass, but it’s typically a much more surreal blend of moving buildings and objects. It would be more accurate to call it the Kaleidoscope Dimension or the We’re Big Christopher Nolan Fans Dimension. So why the Mirror Dimension? On this viewing of Doctor Strange, I started to feel like the whole movie exists inside a Mirror Dimension, reflecting and refracting Marvel’s greatest hits through a surface of striking visuals.
Like Iron Man, it has a brilliant but close-minded man who must learn to put others ahead of his own hunger for fame and material possessions. Like Thor, it’s a cautionary tale about arrogance and brotherhood, with Strange learning the value of friendship fighting alongside Wong. Like Ant-Man, its redemption arc concludes with its hero going on a seeming suicide mission into a hyper-colorful dimension which he miraculously survives. There’s not a lot here that hasn’t been seen before in other (mostly better) MCU movies.
Those hyper-colorful visuals are also a little ironic given the accusations of whitewashing that hung around Doctor Strange, mostly because of the casting of Tilda Swinton as Strange’s magical mentor the Ancient One, a traditionally Asian character. Lee and Ditko’s original concept has aged into a stereotype, and Derrickson wanted to get away from it by casting a woman in the part. But an Asian woman as the Ancient One could have evoked other stereotypes, and eventually, that’s how Derrickson came to cast Tilda Swinton. (“It’s like I chose the lesser evil,” Derrickson told The Daily Beast, “and just because you choose the lesser evil it doesn’t mean you’re not choosing an evil.”)
Derrickson faced a real Kobayashi Maru with that character, and in that Daily Beast interview he does a decent job explaining his motives for the changes (although he didn’t help his case by making a movie set in Asia where a predominantly white cast performs magical kung fu in Asian-influenced garments). He never quite solved the riddle of his movie’s tone, either. With all the trippy concepts and mind-expanding images flying around, the decision was made to fill the movie with broader comedy than is typical of Marvel.
A few of the jokes land, like when Strange settles in to his room in Nepal and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hands him a piece of paper with the word “shambala” on it. “My mantra?” Strange asks. “The wifi password,” Mordo replies. But a lot of the comedy, particularly the gags with Strange’s cloak, which tugs him around during fight scenes until Cumberbatch is running in place like a cartoon character, feel totally out of place. Keeping an unusual conceit grounded is important, but there’s an important distinction to be drawn between grounding a conceit and burying it.
By the same token, I can appreciate trying to broaden the appeal of the story of a depressed former surgeon who finds out how to bend reality to his will by twirling his arms around like synchronized swimmer, but boiling down magic in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to “It lets you make glowy things you can hit people with” feels like an oversimplification of something with a lot of storytelling potential. The scenes where the Ancient One or Strange create weapons out of pure energy are cool, but I do wish Strange got more of an opportunity to act like a sorcerer and less like Neo with a better sense of color blocking. There are some real highlights in Doctor Strange, but it’s almost impossible to fall completely under its spell.
Gallery - The Best-Dressed Characters in the Marvel Universe: