One of the most impressive parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is how they have taken a formula and then found ways to slowly expand it into new dimensions and worlds. It started with bringing fantasy in with Asgard and the demigods in the Thor films. Then, with Guardians of the Galaxy, they introduced the MCU to space opera. Now with their 14th film, Doctor Strange, it was finally time for Marvel to introduce magic and mysticism to their world, and fortunately they did so with a compelling and entertaining film.
Doctor Strange is directed by Scott Derrickson and is an origin story to both the eponymous leading character but also an introduction to the world of mysticism in the MCU. We start out meeting Dr. Stephen Strange, who is played by Benedict Cumberbatch (in perfect casting!). Strange gets in a horrible car accident which causes his hands to seize up and spasm, making it impossible for him to continue his career as a neurosurgeon.
Desperate for a cure, Strange speaks with a man cured of a terrible spinal injury and finds out he received treatment at a place called Kamar-Taj, which is overseen by a person called The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Upon arriving there he learns about the astral plane and the mirror dimension. Like the paralyzed man he can use alternate dimensions and magic to help him become a new man after much training and mastery of said powers. But will he simply go back to the person he was before or become a new man that can save lives on a whole new level as a superhero? Hence our main conflict of the film.
The strengths of Doctor Strange as a film fall into two categories. First, as is usually the case with Marvel, the casting of the lead hero is spot on. Benedict Cumberbatch does a tremendous job portraying Strange. Many have compared his character to Tony Stark in the Iron Man films but I think he brings a desperation that you don’t see from Tony until maybe Iron Man 3. When Strange is begging at the door of the Kamar-Taj, it is emotional and Cumberbatch really sells it. He’s also much more awkward than Tony ever is.
Some of the other casting in Doctor Strange is more controversial. Tilda Swinton is such an enigma as an actor that I kind of dig her portrayal of the Ancient One but it does feel awkward that the role is not portrayed by an Asian actor given the setting. Benedict Wong does a nice job portraying Wong, the protector of the ancient books, but it would have probably been better to have had him and the Ancient One be Asian actors.
The rest of the casting including Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer (she’s the Night Nurse in the comics and basically the medical care for the MCU heroes and I hope they work that into her character for the sequel), Chiwetel Ejiofar as Mordo, and Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius are all fine, if a bit under-developed and under-used. At least nothing is shrill or irritating like in other comic book movies, and, for a surprise, Strange’s cape becomes a fun side character!
The second strength of Doctor Strange is the incredible visuals as Strange dives into the Mirror Universe. One of the weaknesses of many fantasy films is they get bogged down in exposition about the lore and world of the film. This is very boring for me. What Doctor Strange does right is nearly every time exposition is happening the characters are demonstrating the various characteristics of the world. So it’s not just the Ancient One telling us about different dimensions, we immediately see them playing out.
And oh what visuals they are! The Mirror Universe makes the world literally fold up around the characters in dazzling ways that felt like watching a dream unfold.
Some have compared the visuals to Christopher Nolan’s Inception but there is something here that feels more ephemeral and psychedelic than Inception. It’s like pressing a button and the wall turning into a kaleidoscope. I first saw it in IMAX 3D and, while it did make me nauseated a few times, it was awe-inspiring to watch!
It’s pretty impressive that on their 14th movie the MCU still found ways to surprise and delight me with Doctor Strange. Not only does it have a very compelling lead character with an emotional journey but a new world of magic and dimensions that will add many layers to the entire MCU (Those who have seen Thor Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War know what I am talking about). While not all the casting was ideal, Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent and I look forward to seeing what they do when Doctor Strange 2 comes out.
What do you think of Doctor Strange? Is it a successful entry in the MCU for you? Are you bothered by the casting of the Ancient One? Let us know in the comments section.
Rachel is a rottentomatoes approved film critic that has loved animation since she was a little girl belting out songs from 'The Little Mermaid'. She reviews as many films as she can each year and loves interviewing actors, directors, and anyone with an interesting story to tell. Rachel is the founder of the popular Hallmarkies Podcast, and the Rachel's Reviews podcast/youtube channel, which covers all things animated including a monthly Talking Disney and Obscure Animation show.