Marvel Studios introduced a new logo and fanfare in this weekend's release of Doctor Strange, which seems appropriate given the new direction they are taking their cinematic universe. Adding magic and spirituality to a setting primarily driven by science-fiction (with a pinch of science fantasy and mythology courtesy of Thor) will open up a lot of storytelling doors for the future, but how well does Doctor Strange hold up on its own?
Really well, actually. Which is pretty impressive when you consider just how big a pivot this is for the MCU. And the fact that Marvel Studios have now made 14 successful comic book movies without becoming formulaic.
Well, not too formulaic, anyways; since he is not familiar to the average moviegoer, Doctor Strange requires us to sit through yet another origin story which takes our hero on a transformative journey from pride to humility. If this feels familiar, that's because it is the pattern almost every hero in the MCU has followed with the notable exception of Captain America.
This time, we follow Benedict Cumberbatch as brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (MD and PhD we are informed), searching for a means of healing his shattered hands after being involved in a daunting but well-shot car crash. Having exhausted his savings on experimental therapies, he is desperate enough to follow a tenuous lead to Nepal where he encounters the Ancient One, and the movie's first little controversy.
You see, when the character was created in 1963, the Ancient One was depicted as a pretty stereotypical wizened Asian, dispensing inscrutable nuggets of fortune cookie wisdom and guidance for his new pupil. Marvel wisely sought to dispense with this iteration, and cast a spear-bald Tilda Swinton instead, doubling the number of female characters with speaking roles in the film, but opening up Marvel to charges of whitewashing which, in truth, are difficult to deny.
Having said that though, it is a joy to see as talented an actress as Swinton in such a playful role. This may be the best ensemble cast Marvel has assembled to date, boasting not only Cumberbatch and Swinton, but also the tremendously talented Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) as fellow disciple Mordo, and the brilliantly intense Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal) as the villainous Kaecilius. Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) also has a turn as fellow medic and former romantic foil Dr. Christine Palmer, but sadly, there isn't a lot of room in the story for non-spellcasters. Still, that's a lot Oscar party experience for a comic book movie, don't you think?
Thankfully, they don't spend too much time overcoming Strange's skepticism, with the Ancient One kicking this stage of the journey off by punching his soul -sorry, astral form- right out of his body and then into another dimension.
Director Scott Derrickson does a phenomenal job depicting the psychedelic dimensionscapes originally created by artist Steve Ditko in the '60s. Those individuals who participate in recreational pharmacology may wish to forego during these scenes, as they are plenty trippy all on their own.
But as intriguing as these metaphysical excursions are, it's still a superhero movie, so Doctor Strange finds himself quickly drawn into a struggle between the zealots led by mystic apostate Kaecilius and the Ancient One and other Masters who protect Earth from interdimensional threats. Despite the middle of the movie having a bit of a Hogwarts vibe, they don't explain the spells and attacks in any real detail, but they look marvelous. Arcane energies form around the casters' hands, or surround a portal with glowing sparks. Reality is unwound, gravity becomes inconsistent and cityscapes fold in upon themselves like a kaleidoscope, making Doctor Strange the best looking Marvel movie yet.
Doctor Strange is a great character, but like most fictional magicians, can be difficult to get right. His popularity in the comics has depended on writers being able to articulate precisely why he can't just wave his hands to make things better, just prior to, well, waving his hands and making things better, usually while making some sort of incantation. (The gold standard for me has been Brian K. Vaughn's The Oath, well worth a read!) The movie does this admirably well, if perhaps unsurprisingly.
My favourite thing by far about Doctor Strange though is just how true to the source material the movie is. Cumberbatch is perfectly cast, and once the costume is completed, he looks like he could have strode right off of Ditko's drawing board. The Cloak of Levitation not only looks wonderful, it also moves really well, becoming a character in its own right. The Eye of Agamotto is here, the Sanctum Sanctorum in New York's Greenwich Village is at 177A Bleecker Street (right where it is supposed to be), and the sigil of the Vishanti is prominently displayed in the uppermost window.
If they asked me what else I might want, the only nit I might pick is the lack of references to the specific spells of the comics, like the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak, or the Flames of Faltine, or exclamations like "By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!" On the other hand, Mordo does wear the Vaulting Boots of Valtorr, so my alliteration itch is duly scratched.
Most importantly though, Doctor Strange is fun, interspersing chuckles and gags amongst the interdimensional revelations. Despite having a lot of mind-expanding ideas running though it, they don't take themselves too seriously, leavening the proceedings with a number of laughs. (Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. please take note!)
They also do not try to shoehorn in too many references to the wider MCU or draw on too much of the now-extensive Marvel mythology from 13 previous films and multiple seasons of television shows. Hopefully Kevin Feige and the crew at Marvel Studios can keep the magic of Doctor Strange going as they move deeper into Phase Three. They have confirmed that Doctor Strange will be a part of the next Avengers movie, Infinity War, and as always, you will want to stay through the credits for a couple of glimpses as to what the future may hold.