Strange Days: Marvel Embraces the Weird

It has been eight years since Marvel launched their cinematic universe in Iron Man. And although countless heroes have been introduced to the big screen in the meantime, there’s a strong sense that Doctor Strange – the fourteenth film in the franchise – could not have been made any earlier. It feels like Marvel were biding their time with this one, slowly expanding the scope of their universe until mainstream audiences were ready to accept its outlandish premise. It certainly stretches the established rules of the franchise. While the Avengers protect Earth from physical threats, Doctor Strange protects the world from mystical threats. Magic and the occult have long lurked in the background of the MCU, uneasily explained as a side effect of advanced technology, but this is the first film that has embraced them as supernatural phenomena. It’s a whole side of the MCU that has remained unseen until now. But if Doctor Strange is any indication, Marvel has bold plans for the future of their franchise.

Minor spoilers below!

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Doctor Stephen Strange is a gifted neurosurgeon who loses the use of his hands in a car accident. Unable to be healed by Western medicine, he searches for a mystical solution in Kathmandu, where he becomes apprenticed to a sorcerer known as the Ancient One. After learning the mystical arts, Strange is called on to defend Earth against the evil Kaecilius, who is intent on summoning entities from other dimensions to destroy the world.

I must confess: I wanted this film to be good. Doctor Strange has long been one of my favourite Marvel characters, and the idea of the Sorcerer Supreme sharing the screen with Iron Man and Captain America adds a whole new dimension (pun definitely intended) to the MCU. But it’s a dimension that comes with a risk – Strange’s experimentation with the mystic arts had the potential to alienate audiences who are accustomed to the more mundane threats faced by the rest of the Avengers. Thankfully, director Scott Derrickson proves himself more than capable of the task. This is a good film. Perhaps one of Marvel’s best. Derrickson isn’t afraid to embrace the whole psychedelic mysticism that made Doctor Strange so popular in the 1960’s, but it still feels like it inhabits the familiar Marvel continuity.

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Doctor Strange’s action sequences defy anything that Marvel has attempted previously.

Strange’s character arc is one of the most satisfying in the entire franchise. Arrogant and self-centered, Strange only accepts patients who will look good for his career. When he is injured, his hubris and narrow-mindedness make it difficult for him to accept mysticism as a viable alternative to Western medicine. His encounters with other dimensions and the mystical arts humbles him, forcing him to realize his own pettiness. A comparison can be made with Tony Stark, who was similarly forged into a superhero after being mortally wounded. But where Stark could overcome his injuries using his own pre-existing knowledge, Strange must forget his knowledge of Western medicine and embrace Eastern mysticism. His mind is expanded. When he faces the inevitable choice – he can regain the use of his hands and return to his life as a surgeon, or he can help defend the world against mystical threats – his decision represents the culmination of a character journey that has seen a complete transformation. Ego has been abandoned.

Benedict Cumberbatch brings a suitable gravitas to the role of Stephen Strange; his casual arrogance in the opening scenes contrasts well with the humbled sorcerer who selflessly faces death at the end of the film. I was delighted to find that Derrickson has remained fairly true to Strange’s character from the comics. This is not a sorcerer who rushes to fight entities from other dimensions – he bargains with them, using his intellect and powers to force a negotiation.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange.

There has been a glut of superhero origin films in the last decade, and critics have often spoken of genre fatigue. Yet Doctor Strange proves that a good script and strong performances can overcome the feeling that we’ve seen it all before. Not since Thor in 2011 has a Marvel film had to include so much exposition just to make the movie work (Guardians of the Galaxy certainly doesn’t count – we were gleefully thrust into the far reaches of space with no explanation, and it worked perfectly). Doctor Strange has the difficult task of carrying an exciting plot while it also establishes the rules of the mystic arts. These are powers that have only been hinted at in the previous MCU films, but they are central to our understanding of Doctor Strange. Derrickson proves himself to be quite capable at balancing action and worldbuilding. Exposition is revealed only when it becomes relevant to the plot; explanations about other dimensions are embedded within action sequences or accompanied by mind-bending visuals. Screenwriters should take note: this is how to do an origin film.

This is the sort of film that begs to be watched in 3D. From the opening chase scene, as buildings twist and warp around the camera, Doctor Strange stakes a claim to be Marvel’s most visually impressive film. The sight of whole cityscapes bending and reaching into the sky draws inevitable comparisons to Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010). But while Nolan’s dreamworld of Paris was a place of sublime beauty – a gorgeous sight, but ultimately passive, a toy to be played with – Derrickson’s New York is a set piece for one of the film’s best action sequences, a dynamic, twisting labyrinth that threatens Strange with death at every turn. Inception had audiences admiring its cityscape; Doctor Strange has us lost within it.

One of the film's most dazzling action sequences follows Strange as he must flee through an extradimensional New York.
One of the film’s most dazzling action sequences follows Strange as he must flee through an extradimensional New York.

But it’s not just the cityscapes that stand out. Scenes of other dimensions are rendered in lurid psychedelic colours, popping out of the screen. Derrickson takes great delight in optical illusions, and some of the films most uncanny moments happen in the blink of an eye as Strange hurtles through other dimensions. These visuals pay tribute to the surrealist artwork of Steve Ditko, who co-created Doctor Strange in 1963. They are as much as part of Strange’s history as the character himself, and it’s great to see this realized on the big screen. With a cosmology that combined Eastern mysticism with a Daliesque surrealism, it is easy to see why Doctor Strange was a counter-culture icon in the 1960’s.

Steve Ditko's surreal artwork for Doctor Strange.
Steve Ditko’s surreal artwork for Doctor Strange.

Although the Marvel films function primarily within the superhero genre, most of them borrow elements from other genres. The Winter Soldier was a political thriller; Ant-Man was a heist movie; Guardians of the Galaxy was a Space Opera (and represents Marvel’s biggest departure from their usual formula). Doctor Strange continues this tradition of mixing genres, drawing heavily on weird fiction. The concept of ravenous entities from eldritch dimensions who regard all life with contempt is something straight out of H.P. Lovecraft. The climax of the film, as Hong Kong is consumed by another dimension, feels like true cosmic horror.

Does the film have its flaws? Yes, it does. Rachel McAdams is sadly underutilized as Christine Palmer, continuing Marvel’s tradition of casting good actresses into sideline roles. Although Palmer undoubtedly anchors Strange to reality, her brief screentime and lack of involvement at the film’s climax means that she exists solely as a plot device to humanize Strange. Similarly, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s brief appearances as Mordo fail to make use of another incredible actor. His character arc is interesting (and certainly geared towards sequels), but his friendship with Strange is not explored in great detail. An extra twenty minutes would significantly benefit this film, allowing just a little more time to explore the relationships between Strange and his friends.

Although Doctor Strange represents a new direction for Marvel, the MCU feels more complete with the Sorcerer Supreme now inhabiting the shared universe. With fourteen films completed, and eight more forthcoming on Marvel’s latest roster, there’s a strong sense that the studio is starting to tie all the loose ends together before the next two Avengers films. And with the schedule for 2017 set to revisit the Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, and Thor, it doesn’t look like they’ll be losing momentum anytime soon.

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