Doctor Strange is fantasy superhero film starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the title role. It is the latest movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the 14th of the franchise.
The film opens in Kamar-Taj, a compound found in Kathmandu. Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and a group of his followers infiltrate the compound’s library and steals pages from one of the books. The group is forced to flee after encountering The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) in an attempt to take back the stolen pages.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is introduced as a stellar neurosurgeon with a spotless record. Immediately following a surgery, he is pulled aside by fellow surgeon and former lover Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) to address another patient who was considered brain dead by another doctor. Strange performs the surgery successfully, mildly rubbing it in his colleagues’ faces. After a car accident involving rain, high speeds, and distracted driving, Strange is left alive, but unable to steady his hands; effectively ending his career. He drives himself into debt to fix his hands and pushes away Christine, leaving him largely alone. During a physical therapy session, he is introduced to Jon Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a paraplegic that found his cure in Kamar-Taj. Strange spends the last of his money hoping to find the place, and is saved from a mugging by Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Mordo introduces Strange to The Ancient One, who introduces Strange to other dimensions. Strange humbles himself and begs to learn about the Mystic Arts.
Kaecilius and his zealots use the stolen pages to conjure a portal into the Dark Dimension. The dimension consists of a reality without time, and by extension, mortality. They plan to phase Earth into the Dark Dimension to prevent death.
This movie, similar to Guardians of the Galaxy, departs from the Earth-centered stories of the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in favor of one that spans several dimensions. Settings bounce from New York, London, Hong Kong, and at least two dimensions, but are all streamlined to be more-or-less connected to Kamar-Taj. Despite this, I didn’t find the movie to be disjointed or lacking in explanation.
The title character has the most deliberate character development, starting as a successful and very arrogant neurosurgeon. He initially views the injury to his hands as the loss of his life, being unable to perform the tasks that made him wealthy and famous. Using any means necessary to get back, he shows he’s not afraid to bend rules to get results. He eventually humbles himself when introduced to The Ancient One, but his stubbornness is still very present. Karl Mordo is largely a foil to Strange, abiding by a strict moral code and accepting his position in the world. Kaecilius, the antagonist, starts as a student of The Ancient One after losing his family. His ambition eventually makes him turn on The Ancient One and find the portal to the Dark Dimension to prevent the deaths of others. This in mind, Kaecilius can be interpreted as a tragic villain instead of the straightforward villains of previous MCU films.
A lot of dialogue in the movie involves magical realms and medical terms, but the movie puts them in a context that will make it easy for any moviegoer to understand. In addition, the movie addresses and lampshades a mnemonic technique used by Stan Lee when designing characters and events. Alliterative names where a staple for the early Marvel characters, which include but are not limited to Bruce Banner, Reed Richards, Pepper Potts, Peter Parker, J. Jonah Jameson, and of course Stephen Strange.
“Just rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?” – Stephen Strange to Wong (Benedict Wong)
The most prominent theme of the movie, which shows up several times in each act, is the balance of arrogance and humility. Stephen Strange is incredibly arrogant as a surgeon and has to humble himself before unlocking his potential in Kamar-Taj. Kaecilius becomes deluded once he’s introduced to the darker Mystic Arts and commits to something he believes is bigger than himself. The other primary theme is accepting (or not accepting) the world as it’s perceived and the power of belief. Strange initially rebuffs the idea of chakras and the power of belief, only for these things to be central to the plot later.
Early in the movie, Dr. Stephen Strange plays some music when performing an important surgery, which seems to be common in doctor portrayals (though I can’t say for sure that’s what happens in real life). What makes this one particularly interesting is Strange’s personal challenge to name the song, artist, and year of release while he operates. This is brought up at least twice in the movie. In addition, a humorous exchange with Strange and Wong in the Kamar-Taj library occurs when they are introduced to each other. Wong is a mononym, which Strange tries to relate to at least half a dozen singers that also use mononyms. Among the names is Beyonce, which Wong doesn’t confirm to knowing. But in the following scene, it’s clear he knows who she is.
This movie was the most graphically ambitious film I’ve ever seen. Warping scenes and city backdrops puts universe-shaping film Inception to shame. While I normally don’t recommend that movies be watched in 3-D for extended periods of time, this movie practically begs for it to be viewed this way. The most important examples are the introduction to different dimensions that The Ancient Ones gives to Stephen Strange and the battle in New York with Kaecilius.
Benedict Cumberbatch is the title character and known for a plethora of roles, most notably Sherlock Holmes and Smaug of The Hobbit films. Mads Mikkelsen, who plays the antagonist Kaecilius, is no stranger to villain roles, playing Hannibal Lecter in the TV show Hannibal and Le Chiffre in the James Bond film Casino Royale. Chiwetel Ejiofor is perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated performance of Solomon Northrup in 12 Years a Slave. Rachel McAdams portrays Irene Adler in the Sherlock Holmes films alongside MCU alum Robert Downey Jr. and more recently was nominated for an Oscar in the movie Spotlight. Benedict Wong starred alongside Ejiofor in The Martian last year and has also starred in Prometheus. Finally, Tilda Swinton has perhaps the longest film career of the cast, starring in films since 1986.
Fans of Benedict Cumberbatch seem to be flocking to this movie, citing his performances in previous fantasy films and TV shows. The comic book film community is also a set demographic, continuing to build as more movies come out.
Post Movie Thoughts
I feel that this movie definitely warrants a second viewing, if nothing else to try and catch all of the Marvel easter eggs sprinkled throughout the film as they’ve done with others. This film is very similar to Inception, one of my favorite films, in terms of world building and perception-bending, but has several years of development to improve on what they started. The tie-ins to the rest of the MCU comes in at the end of the film.
The origin of Doctor Strange for the films is largely kept to the source material. Originally, The Ancient One is Tibetan and male in the comic books. In this film, The Ancient One is Celtic and female. Critics were quick to jump on the film for white-washing the character, a common occurrence in films as of late. However, the change was a little more complicated. International film releases hinge on the response for the Chinese market. China has a long-standing feud with Tibet, which would not bode well for the film’s box office returns. Tilda Swinton played the role with the intention of being androgynous, though she’s referred to with female pronouns. Other source material changes are in reference to Kaecilius’s original alliances, but for the sake of spoilers I can’t elaborate further.