Doctor Strange is Marvel’s strangest tale yet. As the fourteenth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange introduced magic into the mostly science fiction universe. Unlike Thor or Thor: The Dark World, Doctor Strange is unapologetically mystical with scientific theory used only to modernize its existence. Although Stan Lee had a say in his creation, Doctor Strange is very much the product of artist Steve Ditko’s strange mind. The 1963 comic Strange Tales #110 introduced the Sorcerer Supreme as a very different kind of superhero focused on protecting the world from mystical threats. He was understandably a hit with college kids open to Eastern philosophies and psychedelic drugs.
I’m actually a big fan of Doctor Strange, but I’ve only ever known him as the sorcerer Marvel superheroes call when they have a magical problem. Apart from several animated appearances, a decent 2007 animated movie, and a clever reference in Spider-Man 2, a Doctor Strange movie was a long time coming. As long as you ignore his terrible 1978 TV movie Dr. Strange. Marvel foolishly juggled the rights to Doctor Strange ever since the 80’s. Many studios gained rights to the character and many directors including Wes Craven and Guillermo del Toro wanted to make it. It wasn’t until Marvel Studios took over that producer Kevin Feige made the film part of Phase Three of the MCU. Unlikely horror director Scott Derrickson was brought on board and Doctor Strange became the psychedelic event of the decade…
Doctor Strange is probably the most and least faithful comic book adaptation out there. As a longtime Marvel fan, I knew how tricky it would be to get the Sorcerer Supreme right. At the same time, I knew his adventures were so strange that changes were unavoidable. After the success of Captain America: Civil War, it seemed like the MCU could do no wrong. Netflix had Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, while ABC had season 4 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. focusing on the supernatural Ghost Rider. My only fear was Doctor Strange being too quasi-mystical for my parents. The first teaser didn’t offer much apart from possibility, but the first trailer inspired much more confidence. Against all the doubts, Doctor Strange became one of our favorite MCU films that needed to be seen on the big screen. Doctor Strange is the first Marvel Studios movie that opens with the ridiculously long studio logo featuring clips from past movies instead of comic book panels.
The cold opening reveals a band of mysterious enemy sorcerers stealing pages from a grimoire before being pursued by the equally mysterious Ancient One. It’s here that the movie’s impressive Best Visual Effects nominated psychedelic magic is seen. Buildings bend like Inception pushed to a kaleidoscopic extreme. Although Marvel considered following an already formed Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange’s origin story was too unique to ignore. His origin is extremely faithful to the comics, but it does draw comparisons to the first Iron Man. Dr. Stephen Strange is a wealthy, egotistical, premier neurosurgeon with a photographic memory and the steadiest hands in the medical field. Many actors were considered to play Doctor Strange in the decades it took to get a movie made. I distinctly remember Patrick Dempsey, Ethan Hawke, and Joaquin Phoenix being considered for the role, but the respectable Benedict Cumberbatch was a dream casting that everyone wanted to see. Unfortunately, Cumberbatch had a very busy schedule with his main obligation being Sherlock. It took a while, but Disney finally decided to work around his schedule.
It was the best possible decision, because Benedict Cumberbatch practically leaps off the page. He has Strange’s thinner build and black hair with white temples. The only difference is his clean shaved face and trademark English accent. Although you might expect Cumberbatch to keep his accent, Strange is a New Yorker who requires an American accent. I personally think he does as good a job with the accent as he does with Dr. Strange’s attention seeking medical practise. There are so many big medical words in the movie, but it’s not totally unnecessary. Strange’s lesser known supporting cast includes rival surgeon Nicodemus West and his love interest Dr. Christine Palmer. Although the more magical Clea is Doctor Strange’s more well known love interest, Palmer is much more grounded to Stephen’s life as a doctor. Christine Palmer is one of many Night Nurses from the comics. Including Claire Temple who appears in the Netflix shows played by Rosario Dawson. Rachel McAdams was due for a Marvel role, but she’s not exactly a love interest. Strange & Palmer were once in a relationship, but it didn’t work out.
Strange’s life turns upside down when texting and driving down a winding road causes him to have a brutal car accident. Permanently damaging the nerves in his hands. Causing them to shake uncontrollably. Christine stays by Stephen’s side, but his pride causes him to shut her out. Just like the comics, Strange drains all of his money on procedures that never manage to fix his hands. He lets his beard grow and becomes so desperate that he seeks alternative methods. It leads him to original character Jonathan Pangborn played by Benjamin Bratt. He was once a paraplegic before seeking an ancient temple that taught him to cure himself through the power of belief. Most inaccuracies occur when Strange seeks the comic accurate temple Kamar-Taj. Scott Derrickson is mainly responsible for the strange race related casting and location changes. Although I think they may have overreacted, most changes were made to avoid stereotypes. Strange travels to Kathmandu, Nepal instead of Tibet to avoid controversy in China. Almost every character from Strange’s time in Kamar-Taj is race changed.
Strange’s first major antagonist Baron Mordo is changed from a Transylvanian betrayer of the Ancient One to the black English Chiwetel Ejiofor. This version of Karl Mordo retains the character’s green robes, but he’s no longer the first sorcerer to betray the Ancient One. Giving Strange & Mordo an unexpected comradery thanks to the actors both knowing each other from 12 Years a Slave. The true antagonist is also one the MCU’s weakest. Kaecilius was only ever a throwaway villain in the comics who served as Mordo’s disciple. Making him the main villain of the movie was a strange decision that felt like a serious waste of Mads Mikkelsen. This time his naturally creepy eyes are hidden under purple makeup from the dark spell Kaecilius casts. His motivation is turning against the Ancient One he deems as a hypocrite. The Ancient One is the most confusing casting in the entire MCU. Rather than go with any Fu Manchu or Dragon Lady stereotypes, the typically androgynous Tilda Swinton plays the Ancient One instead of any Asian actor. It’s a strange compromise that they didn’t really need to make. At least Swinton is great at playing such an ethereal character.
Although Strange is skeptical, she opens his mind to the possibilities of the world. The Ancient One knocking out Strange’s astral form is an iconic shot that was only the beginning. What follows is a psychedelic acid trip through the multiverse that bends the mind with trippy visuals in space, hand dimensions, and even weirder worlds. Mordo convinces the Ancient One to teach Strange when she refuses him. Unlike say Harry Potter, the sorcerers who train in Kamar-Taj continue to use modern technology and use spells through complex hand movements. Like the comics, magic is represented by conjuring intricate mandala weapons that form around a sorcerer’s hands. A handy Sling Ring is used to transport sorcerers anywhere in the world. All relics have nonsensical names ripped straight from the comics. Including the Wand of Watoomb, the Book of Cagliostro, and the very important Eye of Agamotto. Strange can’t seem to master the mystic arts, but the threat of freezing to death in Mt. Everest is enough to clear his mind. When Stephen shaves, he finally has his trademark goatee. Strange’s photographic memory causes him to learn fast and study all sorts of magical books in record time.
Doctor Strange is implied to be after Civil War, but there’s a lot of unspecified time that passes. All of Strange’s books are kept with Wong. Although Derrickson nearly omitted every Asian character from the comics, Wong was way too important to leave out. Rather than play an Asian manservant, the ironically named Benedict Wong was cast at the last minute. More ironic is the fact that he already knew Ejiofor from The Martian and shares an uncommon first name with Cumberbatch. This Wong is a much more no-nonsense magical bookkeeper that shares an underappreciated rapport with Strange. Although Strange’s origin is a bit more serious than most Marvel heroes, the signature MCU humor does come out in Strange’s occasional jokes, remarks, and physical comedy. The Ancient One goes deeper by explaining the Mirror Dimension. The primary psychedelic dimension where nothing affects the real world. Strange gets curious and learns about the Dark Dimension by using the Eye of Agamotto. Turns out the Eye can control time itself, which disrupts the natural law.
Although I was worried they’d leave him out, Doctor Strange’s longtime archenemy Dormammu is still the overarching threat of the movie. Wong elaborates by saying that unlike the Avengers, the sorcerers safeguard the planet from mystical threats that seek to destroy the world. Sanctums are set up in London, Hong Kong, and New York that Kaecilius targets in an effort to bring Dormammu’s timeless dimension to their world. London has fallen and an attack on Kamar-Taj sends Strange into the New York Sanctum otherwise known as the Sanctum Sanctorum. I was so happy to see the comic accurate Bleeker Street headquarters on the big screen. It’s there that Strange finally meets his Cloak of Levitation. Giving the cloak a personality makes it the best inanimate object since the Magic Carpet from Aladdin. Kaecilius and his followers wound the Sanctum’s protector and they engage in a mind bending fight with Mr. Doctor. The Sanctum is turned downside up with Strange using a magical gateway to outsmart most of them. When the cloak calls to Doctor Strange, it finally makes him the Sorcerer Supreme we all know and love. His costume is simply perfection with blue robes, the Eye of Agamotto around his neck, and the red Cloak of Levitation completing the ensemble.
Strange uses a trap on Kaecilius and they discuss their respective goals. In the process, Strange figures out the Ancient One draws her power from the Dark Dimension. Unfortunately, Strange is wounded to the point where he needs medical attention from Christine. Derrickson’s best contribution is a wildly inventive fight scene inspired by Doctor Strange: The Oath. As Christine tends to Stephen, he fights a follower in his astral form. When successful, Strange confronts the Ancient One and Mordo begins to show flashes of villainy when faced with the truth. All that will have to wait for another trippy action scene in the Mirror Dimension where all of New York is reshaped. As Strange & Mordo go on the run, they even run into Stan Lee’s cameo as a man on a bus laughing at The Doors of Perception. The Ancient One confirms everyone’s suspicions, but she loses her life in the process. As she dies on the operating table, the Ancient One has a beautiful heart to heart talk with Stephen in their astral forms. She tells him to set aside his ego and work towards something greater than himself. After a platonic kiss from Christine, Doctor Strange joins the fight to stop Dormammu.
The climax sees Strange & Mordo arriving at the Hong Kong Sanctum that has already fallen. Unlike most Marvel finales, the final fight is much more out of the box. Strange turns back time, fights Kaecilius as the city rebuilds itself, and saves Wong’s life in the process. In the end, the only option is to confront Dormammu himself. The Dark Dimension is a far more colorful galactic plane of existence where Dormammu is depicted as more than just a flaming head. Dormammu’s equally colorful face is part of the Dimension and was actually provided by Cumberbatch himself. He just loves doing motion capture. Dormammu is meant to be a dark reflection of Strange, but their confrontation is more than simply a contest of strength. Strange outsmarts Dormammu by initiating an endless time loop where he continuously dies to save humanity.
“Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain” eventually leads to a deal where Kaecilius and his zealots are taken and Earth is left alone. All this disruption of the natural law is enough to force Mordo to leave. A lengthy after-credits scene reveals a slightly more villainous Mordo stealing Pangborn’s magic in an effort to rid the world of sorcerers. Doctor Strange remains at the Sanctum Sanctorum and Wong confirms everyone’s suspicion that the Eye of Agamotto is in fact an Infinity Stone. The green Time Stone to be specific. Doctor Strange ends with a psychedelic credits sequence set to a mystical theme followed by an exciting mid-credits scene. In it, an orange glove wearing Doctor Strange meets his first Avenger. Thor meeting with Strange is exactly how I imagined the Sorcerer Supreme playing a part in the MCU. Doctor Strange is a visual experience that does justice to a strange hero.
Followed by: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness