Doctor Strange wraps up Marvel’s tried-and-tested superhero origin formula with its most demanding and stunning visuals to date. The film conjures up a presentation that rivals Guardians of the Galaxy as the most “un-Marvel” movie but retains that same feel we’ve come to know and love.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the titular Sorcerer Supreme. Strange starts out as a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon who loses the ability to use his hands due to a car accident. Cumberbatch plays the role with as much panache as both Dr. Gregory House and Tony Stark. He offers a vision of how Dr. House would have been had he not injured his leg. Or perhaps, Doctor Strange speculates if House sought magic rather than Vicodin to relieve his pain.
Desperate to regain his success, Strange squeezes Western medicine dry and so ventures to Nepal for a go at Eastern medical arts. Here, he meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Baron Mordo (Chitewel Ejiofor) of Kamar-Taj who eventually teach him the ways of being a sorcerer. Their encounter brings out the movie’s most visually appealing scene: an absolute phantasmagoria as The Ancient One rocks Strange in and out of different mind-blowing dimensions. This scene alone makes an IMAX 3D ticket worth every penny.
Gifted with a photographic memory, he quickly learns the ins and outs of magic through the Kamar-Taj’s vast library of arcana guarded by the stoic Wong (Benedict Wong). Strange and Wong have a colorful history in the Marvel Comics world. Doctor Strange touches on this partnership with the scene’s most lighthearted moments where Strange tries to make Wong laugh with quick one-liners. Fans worried that Strange will mimic Tony Stark’s wittiness can rest easy. The movie’s humor carries much of Marvel’s usual style but Strange’s less confident delivery makes for laughs that stand on their own.
Much of the first act is the classic martial arts training sequence. It’s an appreciated callback to classic martial arts films. You might even hear “Eye of the Tiger” or “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” playing in your head. Strange trains by day and learns by night. He has a rough start but gets his wings when The Ancient One drops him on the peak of Mt. Everest with only a teleportation ring he can’t wield properly to get him out. This completes the trope where master forces student into a do-or-die situation. Throughout the entire sequence, Strange gains new powers that puts him at par with or even above the skills of The Ancient One.
The second act barrels through endless action sequences soon after Strange learns of Kaecilius’s plans. Fight scenes range from astral projection duels, dimension-breaking swordfights, and Inception-esque reality-bending chase scenes. Overall, Doctor Strange delivers action scenes that break away from Marvel’s traditional Michael Bay-styled explosions. By now, we’re at the peak of the movie’s CGI capabilities. Magic rings, spells, and weapons all make dazzling shows between the characters.
As a villain, Kaecilius rises above Marvel’s usual crop of monster-of-the-week villains like Ronan the Accuser and Yellowjacket. In terms of backstory, he never quite reaches the levels of Loki but he sits comfortably beside Ultron in both origin and motivation. Unlike Ultron and his lackies Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, Kaecilius’s troop is made up of just generic henchmen. They do well in terms of creating action, but not in the way of dialogue and exposition.
Also, without giving too much away, Strange’s first film does incredibly well to build up his next villain for a potential sequel or for the events of Infinity War. Marvel has done sequel leadups in the past like in Ant-Man, Thor 2, and of course, the post-credits scenes, but Strange’s leadup doesn’t come from left field. It’s a brilliant exposition of a character.
For all its hero-villain development, Doctor Strange lacks a key factor often present in superhero standalones—a dynamic romantic interest. Jane Foster, Pepper Potts, Jane van Dyne. More than love interests, these characters are as ubiquitous as the heroes they stand alongside. The same can’t be said with Doctor Strange’s Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), though. She spends most of her time as a background character while Strange steals the show elsewhere. Strange’s approach to Palmer is a mature one, but the film could have done more with the character.
Doctor Strange follows the same pattern Marvel has trusted in for years. Thankfully, director Scott Derrickson changes just enough to bring it to a league of its own. It’s another classic Marvel movie anyone can love. Plus, what a surprising mid-credits sequence!
(Pro-tip: stay for TWO post-credits scenes! One is in the middle and another is at the very end.)