The Marvel Cinematic Universe adds not only a new character, but a whole new area to their shared world as the Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange debuts, bringing magic with him. Earlier movies (Thor, Thor: The Dark World) made some half-hearted attempts to invoke Arthur C Clarke’s comment about, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” With Dr. Strange, magic is most definitely not the same thing as science.
The origin of the character, like most of Marvel Studio’s movies, is largely similar to the comic book roots of the character. Surgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is very talented, wildly successful, and incredibly arrogant. A car accident damages his hands to the point where he can no longer operate, or even really hold a scalpel, and his desperation leads him to try increasingly unlikely sources for a chance to heal. Finally, he hears of the Ancient One in the Far East and journeys there.
This is one of the first major differences from the page to the screen. In the comics, the Ancient One is an old Asian man living high up in the mountains in a remote stronghold. In the movie, Tilda Swinton does a fine job playing the Ancient One. While I am generally against random changes from the source material, I’m also a realist. If you put a powerful Tibetian character in your movie, you don’t open in China, which has become a huge market for movies. Making the Ancient One a largely neutral, vaguely English-sounding woman, eliminates that issue. I can understand that one.
Strange, a man of science, has a very hard time adapting to the idea of magic. His own arrogance doesn’t make it any easier. His shaky progress isn’t helped along when he learns that there is a rival group of sorcerers out there, locked in a deadly war with the Ancient One’s followers. The evil leader is Kaecilius, a former student of the Ancient One. Kaecilius is played by Mads Mikkelsen, best known as Hannibal in the tv show from a few years ago. He’s just as chillingly evil here, simply in a different way.
The fight between the two groups and Strange’s training give the opportunity for some really amazing special effects. The combat magic is impressive, but the scenes in other realms are just amazing. This is probably the most visually stunning of the Marvel Studios films to date. The visuals for Strange himself are good, too. As the movie goes on, he gradually shifts to a nicely executed version of his comic book costume, slowly acquiring some of his trademark artefacts.
Unlike the comics, and a change I enjoyed, is Strange’s life from before his accident still impacting his mystic self. The majority of the time this is personified by Christine Palmer, played by Rachel McAdams. Palmer is Strange’s former lover and co-worker, and some of her reactions to Strange’s new world are priceless. Something rarely touched on in the comics is Strange trying to reconcile his plunging into combat with his Hippocratic Oath, which is some nice characterization here.
The evil sorcerers, led by Kaecilus (his followers don’t get names), are trying to break the mystical barriers between worlds and summon the vastly powerful evil entity Dormammu. Their deal with the notional devil marks them all, giving them a look that’s a mixture of the “Ghost Sickness” that’s been plaguing the Agents of SHIELD lately and a rave gone horribly awry. By the end of the movie, Strange, the Ancient One, and her followers Wong and Mordo are in really desperate straits. Strange comes up with a brilliant way to stop Dormammu. It’s not a matter of overpowering the creature; even Strange can’t pull that off. But he does find a way to do something really creative that shows just how far he’s come from the self-involved surgeon he starts as.
There are no bad scenes and no bad performances. This is a great movie. There are ties to the rest of the Marvel Universe a few different ways. The Ancient One actually mentions the Avengers by name at one point. Strange is reviewing potential cases to take just before his life changing accident, and one of them is an Air Force Colonel whose spine was damaged in experimental armor, which pretty much has to be Jim Rhodes after War Machine’s fall in Captain America: Civil War. And there are a few glimpses of Avengers’ Tower in the background during scenes in New York. There are two end scenes, one that seems to set up directly for one of the next movies, and another that shows what’s coming next for Dr. Strange. And a big reveal near the end, that I can’t talk about without a major spoiler (the line got a murmured “wow” rippling through the theater when I saw this) is a very concrete tie to something lurking at the back of most of the Marvel movies. And yes, there’s a Stan Lee cameo. Of course. Marvel Studios also has a new opening, replacing the comic book flipping pages look. I really liked it.
I’ve heard a few people wonder if they’ll get this movie since they aren’t fans of Dr. Strange. I’ll grant, he’s not one of Marvel’s better-known characters outside comics. But a few of the people I saw this with had no idea who Strange was before the movie, and they all really enjoyed it. So I’d say you’re fine no matter what your level of comic book knowledge is.
I’m giving this a 4.5 out of 5. I’d rank it in the upper third of the Marvel movies. That doesn’t mean it’s not a great film; it is. It’s just that the bar is so high in the other movies.
What I liked: Just about everything. The visuals are amazing. Cumberbatch and the rest of the cast are really, really good. The plan to stop Dormammu is both clever and pretty much embodies the ideal of a self-sacrificing hero. The ties to the Marvel Universe are there, but not overwhelming. There’s action, humor, character development, and heroics.
What I didn’t: The big reveal near the end that I’m not going into detail about is a change I’m not sure I liked, one of the few deviations from Strange’s comic book canon. The magic fight scenes are almost a mix of spectacular magic effects and martial arts. It looks cool, it’s just not my preferred version of magic, but that’s a personal preference of mine, I admit.
Whether you’ve never heard of Dr. Strange before this movie, or you’re a comic book fan and hero geek like me, this is a movie worth seeing. And you really need to see it in the theater on the big screen at least once.