Last night I had the pleasure of seeing episode three of season three of The Avengers. This episode was titled Doctor Strange. It was directed by Scott Derrickson and written by Jon Spaiths, Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill. I want to make it clear up front that my quasi-facetious comparison of Doctor Strange (and really all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies) to episodes of television shows is not in the least pejorative. Given the quality and range of this golden era of television we are in, the comparison is a compliment. With the MCU we are currently witnessing an experiment in form the likes of which we have never seen before and while these installments play, at least at first, in movie theaters, to me they have more in common with episodic TV shows than they do with standard, standalone films (they even have cold opens!). But enough about that for now, let’s talk about how much of a mind-bending, rocking good time Doctor Strange is. It’s a blast.
For someone like me, that is to say, someone who does not read comic books, the MCU has been approaching territory that runs a good chance of turning me off of the series. As a non-comic book reader I’m not one to appreciate “comic book logic” for its own sake and there’s a level of out-thereness that I just can’t handle under normal circumstances. Guardians of the Galaxy skated around the edge of this, but I could feel it there. Any talk of Infinity Stones or, dear God help me, the Infinity Gauntlet, gets me rolling my eyes and throwing all the shade.
There’s a catch, though. If it’s packaged right, I will go along for the ride. If it’s wrapped up inside enough pure, unadulterated fun, then I don’t care how out there, weird, nerdy, geeky the subject is, I’ll go all in like Lucille Bluth witnessing a Gene Parmesan reveal.
Guardians of the Galaxy got this mostly right. Like most Marvel films it has third act problems that get in the way of the fun (more on that later), but for the most part, I was having such a good time with that film that all that Infinity Gauntlet, purple-headed Thanos nonsense didn’t bother me. That brings us to Doctor Strange. A couple years ago I started hearing about the mystical side of the Marvel universe and I was pretty sure that was going to spell trouble for me. Super heroes mixed up in Eastern philosophy mixed with some sort of multi-verse, string theory, kaleidoscopic mish mash? Um, no. Well, yes. It works. It works so well in Doctor Strange that I was fascinated and, most importantly, I had FUN! There were at least two moments in the film where the camera moved in just such a way in visual concert with the stellar CG work on display that I got this huge grin on my face and mentally thought, “COOL!” And not just one-syllable “cool.” We’re talking two syllable, “Coo-wull!”
The plot centers around a neuro-surgeon, Dr. Stephen Strange, played wonderfully by The Batch (Benedict Cumberbatch—you know him from Sherlock, The Imitation Game, and for being awesome). The casting is really excellent here as The Batch is basically playing a variation on his Sherlock character minus the British accent and the Autism spectrum. He’s eccentric, his ego is huge, and he’s really, really good at his job. This similarity between Sherlock and Dr. Strange really plays to the film’s advantage as it allows us to get settled and into the groove of the film rather quickly. It’s the kind of the thing that could have been a crutch or a weakness of the film, but I think Cumberbatch and Derrickson really work it as a strength.
Dr. Strange meets with disaster when he gets into a car accident (don’t text and drive folks) and his hands are severely injured. So injured that he can no longer open and close them like normal, much less perform delicate neuro-surgery. This doesn’t sit well with his limitless ego, so Dr. Strange embarks on a journey to fix his hands. He goes through numerous surgeries and physical therapy. Nothing works. Eventually, desperate, he finds himself in Nepal in search of a place called Kamar-Taj where he’s heard he can get help. Here he encounters The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her assistant/helper/Dwight, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Morpheus The Ancient One opens Neo’s Dr. Strange’s eyes to the existence of the multi-verse, astral projection, and a bunch of other crazy mumbo jumbo. Stuff like the “sling ring” and “relics” and “interdimensional portals.” None of this should work, but it does! The visual FX here are stellar and go a long way towards selling this world not only as real, but existing right alongside the world we already know. The CG is seamlessly woven into the live action, in-camera work.
Also key to making all this shine are the performances, which are grounded and tuned just right to the material. Cumberbatch, again, is fantastic. He’s quick, sarcastic, and edgy. Ejiofor, one of my favorite actors, also does a great job as a kind of middle man between Dr. Strange and The Ancient One. Tilda Swinton is also quite good. A quick word here on her casting. It’s not clear to me what the casting of a British woman brings to this role that outweighs what could have been the benefits of a more racially and culturally congruous casting choice. On the other hand, Swinton is really good in this part. The situation is unfortunate. There’s not much for this reviewer to do about this other than to acknowledge that both of these things are true.
I’d also like to add that Benedict Wong (The Martian, Prometheus) has a small, but important role in the film and he steals almost every scene he is in. Rachel McAdams is also in this movie, but unfortunately she’s not given much to do other than to be Cumberbatch’s love interest and to look worried. She’s good in every scene she’s in, but she’s just not given a lot to work with. I really hope they involve her more in future installments. This brings us to Mads Mikkelson (Hannibal, Casino Royale) who plays our big baddie, Kaecilius, a former pupil of The Ancient One’s who has gone rogue and now wants to…um, live forever and/or destroy the world? I think?
The one glaring problem with this film, and it’s a problem with almost all of these MCU movies, is a lack of clarity about just what the bad guy wants and why. Mikkelson is good here. He’s menacing and at times scary. The CG combined with what I’m assuming is wire work and some in-camera trickery make the martial arts scenes with him and his goons work very well. They’re dynamic, exciting, and downright mind-bendingly awesome when they start fighting in the “Mirror Dimension,” a kind of parallel dimension of the real world where these sorcerers can bend reality to their will, but also not do any damage to the real world (another thing that shouldn’t work but does).
These scenes have some of the jaw dropping visuals you’ve seen in the trailers of cities being bent in on themselves and buildings turning into fractals. It’s all very exciting and engaging. However, it all still leads to yet another entire-planet-or-at-least-a-city-in-peril climax. Why is this guy willing to destroy the world? One thing I’ll give Marvel this time is that they avoided the Giant Blue Light in the Sky Syndrome. There is no giant blue light, instead it’s a weird string-theory influenced dimension invading ours. It looks REALLY cool, but functionally it’s pretty much the same as the giant blue light. All that being said, the resolution to the film is inventive and clever. It did not go in a direction I was expecting and I enjoyed going along for the ride with Strange as he figured out what to do.
As an episode of the epic Avengers series we’ve seen thus far, I think Doctor Strange is one of the top tier installments. It’s got a killer cold open, as all good shows must now have, it’s exciting and fresh while also getting through all of the origin story nonsense rather painlessly. It’s not quite up there with Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Captain America: Civil War, which are my favorites, but it’s close and it’s more fun than either of those. Come for The Batch, stay for the bat-shit insane visuals. Doctor Strange opens all across the country on Friday, November 4th. See it in 3D if you can.