For a production company that is faulted at times for sticking to a very specific formula, Marvel Studios takes a fair amount of risks. The most obvious of these is a willingness to base big budget movies around B-List characters. However, as Ant-Man demonstrated last year and Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014, viewers are eager to embrace heroes who previously had little, if any, exposure outside of fan culture. This combined with a mixing of subgenres (science-fiction space opera, heist caper family drama) has helped keep the formula from growing stale. Yes, the standard tropes are still there, but, in the best movies, they blend with more unique elements. This is definitely the case with Doctor Strange, the most recent entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Its mixture of technical prowess and strong ensemble acting crafts a film which is equal parts awe-inspiring and humane. Central to the movie’s success, same as Captain America Civil War earlier this year, is the conviction that the spectacle must be anchored with compelling character work.
The movies opens within the library of the mystical compound Kamar-Taj in Katmandu. Director Scott Derrickson uses this prologue to establish the rhythm of his film. The sequence begins quietly, savoring the ambiance of the locale. At night, wind chimes softly murmur in the compound’s courtyard. The library itself is a simple yet impressive piece of set design, which is an early indication of Derrickson’s ability to judge when less is more. Into this atmosphere of tranquility enters Kaecilius who murders the librarian and rips pages from one of the tomes. He is discovered and flees with his followers. At this point, the movie adopts a more breakneck pace, plunging into a string of striking visuals, as sorcerers warp the physical environment around themselves. Rules of nature appear to vanish as buildings twist shape and the combatants defy gravity. Kaecilius escapes; his pursuer slips back into the everyday. All the surroundings are reset as if nothing was ever amiss. This alternation between mundane and otherworldly will repeat throughout the film.
Having completed this prologue, the narrative settles into the story of Doctor Stephen Strange, successful Manhattan surgeon. The screenplay by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill (Jon Spaihts shares a story credit) is faithful to the iconic aspects of Strange’s background, spending just enough time to emphasize his ego without belaboring the point. Actor Benedict Cumberbatch slips easily into the role of Strange, displaying just enough charm to stay on the right side of repellent. After a car accident damages the nerves in his fingers, however, he plunges into full despondency. Here his recklessness comes to the fore squandering both his material wealth and emotional connections, the latter primarily in the form of nurse and former lover Christine Palmer. What is most interesting about Cumberbatch’s performance is how he presents Strange as a figure whose personality never entirely settles into one register. He learns humility which in a sense feeds his ego, which leads to the need for another lesson in humility. Beneath that bluster, however, is a self-confidence that is easily shaken. His teacher The Ancient One, suggests that he became a doctor to trick himself into thinking that he can control the uncontrollable: death. Does his newfound dedication to the mystic arts follow a similar pattern?
Strange’s willingness to bend the rules puts him at odds with another resident of Kamar-Taj: Karl Mordo. When Stan Lee and Steve Ditko first unveiled Mordo he was more or less a full-fledged villain pursuing evil for evil’s sake. Derrickson and Cargill toss out this approach, preferring to present the character in heroic terms. Chiwetel Ejiofor invests his performance as Mordo with a clear nobility. His past is left murky, though, plenty of hints are dropped that it contains tragedy. Within the walls of Kamar-Taj, Mordo has achieved peace of mind, yet, as The Ancient One pointedly reminds him “We do not escape our demons, we simply fly above them.” While spoken to Mordo, these words could apply equally well to Strange. Both disciples are men who had their cores stripped bare, finding renewal within the mystic arts. At the same time, their approaches clash. Ejiofor plays Mordo as the type of convert whose devotion to the rules outweighs all other considerations. When Mordo speaks of the unintended consequences of tampering with forbidden rites, the viewer wonders how much of the speech is meant for himself. Mordo needs structure to stay on the right path and cannot abide by Strange defying it, even, or especially with the entire planet at stake. It is a very intriguing approach to the character which allows him to evolve organically without any melodramatic moment of “losing it.” Indeed, for much of the movie Strange and Mordo share a dynamic similar to that of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark in Civil War. Also, like Civil War, Derrickson and Cargill are smart enough to respect each side of the debate, proving again that comics can address larger moral issues without resorting to bombast.
Bringing these two men together is The Ancient One. From the moment Tilda Swinton’s casting in the role was announced, it was greeted with starkly opposing opinions. In one camp, were the detractors who cried foul that a traditionally Asian character was being replaced by a Caucasian. The other side pointed out that The Ancient One was at root an outdated stereotype who needed updating anyway. While Derrickson inserts into the movie a couple visual gags mocking such racial clichés, it is probably not enough to silence the first group. In the end, each side has their valid points. For the purpose of this review, however, it is suffice to say that Swinton more than ably fills the role. Bypassing many of the standard tropes for a mysterious sage, she crafts her own character. She is a warm, hospitable hostess. She often avoids speaking in riddles, preferring more direct psychological lessons and/or practical skills. At the same time she has a definite presence; the viewer never doubts her experience or power. She is also not above a little rule bending herself, which proves to be a vital component in Mordo’s journey.
Such strong character work proves to be essential in keeping Doctor Strange rooted, even as it keeps expanding visually. The trailers emphasized the mind-bending aspect of the special effects and the final product definitely lives up to expectations. This is a movie full of jaw-dropping visuals. CGI is more than getting the most expensive toys possible; the effects team needs to know what to do with them. As with any other aspect of filmmaking, creativity is the key ingredient. Derrickson and his effects artists clearly took their time designing the mystical world. Those worried that the film would be all kaleidoscope flourishes can rest assured that there is much more to the movie. Arguably the most stunning sequence is Strange’s initial introduction to otherworldly dimensions. The Ancient One sends his astral form careening through the multiverse. At breakneck speed he bounces from one surrounding to another, as the visuals grow increasingly hallucinogenic, including one freaky encounter drawing on Strange’s preoccupation with his damaged hands. Then for a split second everything halts and Strange hangs suspended in space before being pulled back to his body on Earth.
That brief moment of respite serves as an illustration for why the visual element of Strange works as well as it does. Derrickson does not barrage viewers constantly for two hours. Frantic sequences will be followed by long sections of calmer character beats. The most striking image from the movie involves no action at all. Strange and The Ancient One’s astral forms stand together gazing into the Manhattan night sky. They talk of possible futures and mortality, the choices which define a life. A light flashes on Swinton’s face as she speaks, though, there is no reverse shot to reveal the source. When the angle does shift, the viewer sees two transparent figures looking out into the sky. Glimpses of light shine behind the clouds, yet the view is nearly clear of mystical effects. It is a beautiful image which is so stunning because it highlights the human emotions of the scene instead of overwhelming them. Similar credit should be given to Michael Giacchino’s score which throughout the narrative never strays into the bombastic; for this reason it is easily the most impressive one to grace a Marvel Studios film to date.
Doctor Strange has the strongest sense of discovering new realms of any Marvel film since the Guardians of the Galaxy flew into Knowhere (it is probably not a coincidence that Guardians and Strange share a cinematographer, Ben Davis). Derrickson and his collaborators craft a world which feels real. Despite all the pyrotechnics, there is never the sense of actors fumbling before a green screen. Care has been put into design elements both practical (the costumes are great) and computer generated. These two threads come together in the production of Strange’s famed Cloak of Levitation. First seen bobbing around in a glass case, it instantly displays a personality resembling an overeager puppy (or perhaps kitten, given The Ancient One’s labeling of the Cloak as “fickle”). Regardless, it is a great piece of creativity which reminds viewers of how, in the right hands, computers can express imagination as well as more traditional visual effects techniques have in the past.
Finally, while Strange does appear to have a specific role to play in the evolution of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it does not overemphasize such matters. It does name check outside elements enough for sufficient fan-service but never gets bogged down in setting up future plots in the way Avengers Age of Ultron did. There is a mid-credits scene which presumably positions Strange for a future film, but it is done in a lighthearted manner, which, more importantly feels like an organic next step. The end credit scene is actually one of the few false-notes of the movie. What happens seems like a logical development, though, it feels like a step in the narrative process has been skipped in order to get to a more dramatic end point. Time will tell.
For now, however, fans have a thoroughly enjoyable adventure through the mystic arts. Earlier this year, Civil War set the bar rather high for superhero films, just as its predecessor Winter Soldier did for 2014. In each case, Marvel met those high standards by offering fans something different than more of Captain America’s intense, grounded geo-politics: goofy Guardians in 2014, trippy Strange this month. Such variety remains key to the Marvel success story. Next up in 2017? More space oddities, a high school drama and cosmic mythology.