Anyone who thinks – let alone imagines – that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Doctor Strange, the latest entry in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) will revolutionize big-budget superhero-oriented blockbusters will be likely disappointed. Story wise, there’s nothing in Doctor Strange that can be described as revolutionary or even evolutionary, but that’s looking at Doctor Strange through one narrow lens, a lens that obviously ignores that film operates on a visual, cinematic level too and there, Doctor Strange succeeds beyond even the highest of expectations shared by comic-book fans and MCU fans (i.e., everyone else). Despite a sporadically intriguing, mid-level career as a genre filmmaker, Scott Derrickson (Deliver Us From Evil, Sinister, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) has delivered a superhero entry bursting with visual ingenuity, creativity, and imagination unparalleled in superhero-themed filmmaking, in or out of the MCU, expanding the MCU into a multiplicity, into a multiverse of possibilities that will repay a near infinity of repeat visits.
When we first meet Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), he’s not the Sorcerer Supreme (that comes much, much later). He’s not even a Sorcerer’s Apprentice. He is, however, hubris personified. By all accounts, Strange is a brilliant neurosurgeon, uniquely gifted with a scalpel, an eidetic memory, and an ego the size of Manhattan. To his patients, he’s a benevolent god. To his long-suffering colleagues, he’s an arrogant egotist and narcissist (essentially Tony Stark without the billion-dollar bank account or a majority stake in a defense contractor). When an accident – the result of a careless, reckless act – leaves him with severely limited use of his hands, Strange initially turns to experimental therapies and surgeries before desperately turning to non-Western alternatives. He eventually settles on the least likely of possibilities (least likely for a man of science, logic, and rationality like Strange): Mystical healing in far off Kathmandu, Nepal under the guidance of a wisdom teacher, first name “The,” middle name “Ancient,” last name “One” (Tilda Swinton), rumored to have the ability to heal bodies along with minds and spirits.
Almost immediately, the Ancient One blows Strange’s mind – or rather his preconceptions about reality and the laws governing reality – channeling her inner Morpheus to briefly separate Strange from his astral body. Strange takes a 2001: A Space Odyssey-inspired trip through space, time, and everything in between. Before long, Strange begins his ascent from Sorcerer’s Apprentice to full-fledged sorcerer, but learning the intricacies of the mystical martial arts doesn’t get him any closer to his original goal: Healing his permanently injured hands so he can resume his once comfortable life as a feted neurosurgeon. As the montages pile up and Strange’s proficiency with spell casting (here used to create pentagram- and hexagram-shaped mystical shields and weapons that crackle and sparkle with energy), he also learns about an existential threat involving one of the Ancient One’s former students-turned-mortal-enemy, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), and his not-so-merry band of religious zealots. Kaecilius wants nothing less than the end of the world (a small bargain for what he expects in return).
Strange’s hero journey might follow a well-worn, overly familiar path (fall, rise, redemption) that’s become Marvel’s go-to formula for box-office success, but that doesn’t take into account the near masterful world building that Derrickson and his co-writers, C. Robert Cargill (Sinister) and Jon Spaihts (Passengers, Prometheus), accomplish through story, character, and visuals. The broader outline, the broader details might have a seen-that, move-on-to-something-else-please quality, but on closer inspection, the attention to character, specifically character details, quirks, and nuance, along with lightly humorous dialogue, an efficient, economical approach to exposition (simple ideas lead to more complex ideas, complex ideas lead to even more complex ideas), and convincingly committed performances from Cumberbatch and a supporting cast that includes Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, Strange’s ex-girlfriend and a doctor in her right, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, Strange’s fellow mage, a dry, droll Benedict Wong as Wong, the mystical monastery’s chief librarian and a key Strange ally, and Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, though both McAdams and Mikkelsen are underserved by a screenplay that keeps them on the sidelines for lengthy chunks of time while Doctor Strange settles into training/montage mode. Casting Swinton in a thankless role – a non-Asian actor invited accusations of “whitewashing,” an Asian actor would have invited accusations of stereotyping and racism – was, if not as clever or smart as Derrickson envisioned, still a positive one. Swinton’s ethereal otherness makes the Ancient One feel less like a narrative crutch – present primarily as a Yoda- or Obi Wan Kenobi-inspired guide or mentor – and closer to the complex, flawed character Derrickson and his co-writers obviously imagined.
Derrickson, however, offsets practically every familiar story, emotion, and action beat with epic-scaled spectacle, replacing the natural laws of physics and gravity with their exact opposite. In a parallel, mirror universe, the laws of physics don’t apply. Skilled sorcerers can bend buildings back on themselves, creating three-dimensional Mobius strips and M.C. Escher-inspired optical illusions (minus the illusion). Derrickson mixes magic and mysticism with traditional martial arts (to his credit, it never looks even remotely silly or ridiculous). Sorcerers can conjure shields and weapons with a flick of their wrists and a wave of their hands. They can also create space-bending portals connecting disparate locations (e.g., Kathmandu with London, Hong Kong, and New York, among others). Over time, Strange acquires the Eye of Agamotto, the aptly named, scene-stealing Cloak of Levitation, and a throwback goatee and graying temples to mirror his comic-book counterpart. Derrickson and his collaborators at ILM never seem to run out of visual ideas or set piece variations. Each set piece doesn’t just go bigger than its predecessor; it takes the audience deeper into the mystical realm where Doctor Strange has made his virtual home for more than fifty years. On the strength of Doctor Strange, another fifty years exploring Doctor Strange’s world(s) doesn’t sound like a bad proposition at all.