Scarlet Witch better make some room because another magician has made his debut in the MCU. Doctor Strange has arrived. This film is unique and colorful. A visual stunner. But does it suffer from moral ambiguity?
I expected some mind-bending special effects and exciting action sequences, and Doctor Strange definitely has those. Ant Man briefly explores the idea of another dimension when Scott Lang falls into continuous shrinking. Doctor Strange provides a more in depth look at the concept of other dimensions, and we learn that the number of different dimensions are almost beyond count. Part way through the film we get a crazy montage showcasing the depth, variety, and vast number of realities, and it is wild. The effects and imagery the film produces go far beyond anything I’ve ever seen in my own dreams while I sleep. To employ a word used by several critics already, it is psychedelic. Getting to watch the characters engage in combat while they bounce back and fourth between our reality and another and navigate the unpredictable topsy-turviness just makes it even better. You can still recognize this movie as a Marvel film, but it is unlike anything we’ve seen yet. It is different and it is fun.
Doctor Strange doesn’t simply hang its hat on the action and crazy special effects, though. Among the many things that Marvel Studios has done exceptionally well are its origin stories, and strong character development has been a big part of that. Dr. Stephen Strange’s introduction continues that trend.
How do you take something strange and make it awesome? You start by giving the title role to Benedict Cumberbatch. Obviously. Doesn’t matter what it is – give this guy any part, and he will make certain that you remember it. Sure enough, Benny Batch makes a strong showing as Dr. Stephen Strange.
Fair warning: spoilers may follow.
Strange’s work is his life. So when a horrific car accident puts an abrupt end to his prestigious career, it all but destroys him. Strange is obsessed with finding a way to fix himself in order to reclaim his place in the medical profession. So consumed is he by this obsession that when it seems none of the leading experts can help him, he drives away his only real friend in his inconsolable grief. Rachel McAdams deserves recognition as well for her role as Christine Palmer, Strange’s colleague and former flame, who is hurt by his unbridled ego and visceral bitterness. It just goes to show that we are not the only ones who are harmed by our idolatry.
Strange’s desperate search for answers leads him to Kamar Taj where he meets the Ancient One, who rocks his world when she opens his mind to a whole new realm of possibilities. I love Tilda Swinton in this role. She reminds me of a wise owl, mysterious and unflappable.
Spellbound by what he has seen, Strange endeavors to master the mystic arts, learning to use magic by drawing power from other dimensions. In addition to the Ancient One, he also receives instruction from the disciplined and traditionally-minded Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as well as Wong (Benedict Wong), the humorless, stone-faced librarian of the mystic texts. After rebuking Strange for carelessly meddling with the powerful Eye of Agamotto, they warn him about the consequences of defying “natural law.” They also teach him about the sanctums – the world’s protection from mystic threats – which the Ancient One and her followers defend.
In the blink of an eye, Strange becomes a reluctant participant in the struggle against Kaecilius. Mads Mikkelsen plays the rogue Kaecilius, former master at Kamar Taj as well as a former pupil of the Ancient One, who seeks life everlasting. This may be the cast’s only weak link. Mikkelsen seems somewhat limited with this character and perhaps a little wooden. However, as an MCU villain, he is at least more developed than Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith (talk about a well of untapped potential). Kaecilius can still connect with the audience, having experienced tragedy and loss of his own. He is clearly a broken man, careless of the carnage he leaves in his wake and heedless of the dark power he wields and the terrible fate he will bring upon the world in his efforts to obtain immortality for himself and all of mankind. He’s convinced that he is saving the world.
As he fights for survival, Strange discovers an unlikely ally in the Cloak of Levitation. This relic, much to the viewer’s amusement, does more than just levitate – it has a mind of its own. But there comes another discovery, one that is not so pleasant. It is revealed that the Ancient One has been keeping an unsettling secret about the source of her power and longevity. While her actions were borne of noble intent, she looks the hypocrite, as she is seen breaking the rules she worked to instill within her students. What’s troubling is that the film’s narrative doesn’t seem to reprove her with any decisiveness. In fact, Strange declares that “she did what she believed was right.” That may be true, but in a certain light, the same could be said of Kaecilius. Poor Mordo, who has been a stalwart advocate for the Ancient One, is understandably disillusioned by her hypocrisy and Strange’s disregard for “natural law.”
So what’s the prevailing message here? Are we to fight fire with fire? Is it okay to compromise our values to achieve the greater good? Should we do the wrong thing for the right reasons? Amid the confusion, perhaps the film’s redeeming principle is found in the words spoken by the Ancient One herself. “It’s not about you,” she tells Strange. That’s a big one. Strange’s medical career has always been about him rather than his patients. He cared more about his own success than the lives he was saving. His arrogance and fear of failure have been holding him back, but during some eleventh hour heroics he sacrifices his pride and is prepared to make his loss the world’s gain, risking an eternity of endless suffering for the sake of humanity.
Another point in the movie’s favor is Strange’s decision following the story’s climax to lay aside the Eye of Agamotto until he better understands its power. Perhaps an indication that he intends to use magic more responsibly, which hopefully means that, going forward, humility and selflessness will continue becoming his defining traits.
Doctor Strange is vibrant, creative, and fun, incorporating plenty of action and a smattering of humor. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers another great performance alongside a mostly-strong supporting cast. The film’s moral philosophy may seem a little hazy, but its emphasis on selflessness is a positive endorsement. Strange arrives at Kamar Taj in search of healing for his body, but he may have received a healing of the heart instead.