Doctor Strange is itself a slice of magic. It takes the familiar format of the Marvel superhero origins and subverts them with a fresh and flashy display. The tapestry of fluctuating matter and the colorful trippiness of dimensional traveling throughout the film becomes almost hypnotic in its relentless display of detailed and decadent effects. Stare long enough at it and you might just see past the superhero origin arc to which we’ve all become accustom.
If you haven’t seen it yet, be warned there are spoilers ahead.
Similar to Iron Man, the genesis of Doctor Strange is that of a man who has it all, loses it all, and learns to be less of an egotistical jerk. The oddly named Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a masterful neurosurgeon and is well-aware of his talents. Having made a name for himself to support his expensive lifestyle, he figures he’s famous enough to be selective of his patients. But karma strikes back at him big time when a violent car crash—caused by his own recklessness—leaves his hands severely nerve damaged. Desperate for anything to restore his hands, he spends the last of his cash on visiting Nepal in a desperate attempt to meet with the Ancient One (a bald and wise Tilda Swinton).
Hoping to find some experimental method of repairing his cells, Strange instead is revealed to Steve Ditko’s odd mystic world of other dimensions where reality bends, hands grow on fingers, bodies can split into duplicates, and perspective becomes unreliable. After being given a mere a glimpse of these worlds in his ultimate psychedelic trip, Strange begs to learn more at the Ancient One’s New Age, nondescript Asian mysticism school for sorcerers. With the right amount of teaching, some guidance from fellow sorcerer Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and plenty of reading up on spells, Strange takes to magic quickly. He made it through medical school, so magic school couldn’t have been too tough.
Of course, Stephen’s magical powers are desperately needed to confront the villainous Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a rogue sorcerer with the appearance of applying volcanic mascara to his face. Harnessing the power of a dark dimension, Kaecilius plans to hand over control of the Earth to a giant CGI creature in exchange for eternal life. He’s got an ax to grind with the Ancient One and, as the rank and file sorcerers try to stop him, he stages assaults on her bases of operation. Though Kaecilius has solid motivation and some cleverness to his evil schemes, he’s mostly an a-typical Marvel villain with a constant scowl and little charisma. At least he’s not using the standard blue laser for his destructive plans; it’s a purple cloud this time.
Despite following the Marvel formula almost to the letter, Doctor Strange‘s magic use and fight sequences are creative and dazzling enough to overshadow the plot. When Kaecilius and the Ancient One do battle, they manipulate the matter of buildings to turn a city into a perspective-distorting maze of shifting gravity and contorting surfaces that would make Inception blush. The third act contains the expected showdown with city-destroying damage, but I admired the clever twist on this sequence which literally reverses all the destruction while still featuring a fight.
All of these fantastic special effects actually legitimately felt special as opposed to being mundane noise. It’s a rare case where there’s so much on screen and I wanted to see all of it. Even Doctor Strange’s costume becomes interesting, as his sentient cape of levitation goes on the offensive in some hilarious moments of slapstick.
For as fun as Doctor Strange can be with its visuals, I found myself more interested in its world(s) than its characters. Cumberbatch is well suited for the role of Stephen Strange, but perhaps too well suited, given his ease of playing a cocky savant on Sherlock. His character is more appealing for the journey he goes on than his personality. I never felt as though I truly grasped his egotism or his sacrifice in learning a lesson.
The movie has so much cool stuff to show us it forget to make Doctor Strange himself a cool character. The few attempts at giving Strange personality quirks, such as his encyclopedic knowledge of music, become lost over the course of the movie and rarely pay off. Similarly, there isn’t a whole lot of charisma to the Ancient One, developed as little more than a smiling sage with her mysterious background. While Mordo does have an equally interesting arc, his shift in character comes far too late into the picture to be organic. Wong (Benedict Wong) has no arc whatsover and seems to simply be there for comic relief. Even Strange’s love interest (Rachel McAdams) felt as though she were an afterthought as she completely disappears in the third act.
But with its elegant use of magic, Doctor Strange manages to elevate itself as more than just another superhero origin tale. It has a well-defined world, a distinct visual style and even a noticeably divergent soundtrack. The action scenes are far more imaginative than the usual blasts and booms of other Marvel pictures. The story feels self-contained enough where it doesn’t become reliant on connecting with other movies, reserving the tie-ins for the post-credit scenes, which actually felt more like plot developments than one-off gags. After all, there’s already enough going on without cramming in an Iron Man or a Hulk. But with all the world building presented in Doctor Strange and the sorcerers’ reality-altering abilities, I am anxious to see how this will all meld into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Perhaps now the next Avengers movie will feature more than just energy blasts and projectile weapons.
Note: This article was updated on 11/6/2016 to correct two misidentifications introduced through an editing error.