Today marks the official theatrical debut of the latest chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and directed by Scott Derrickson. To those who have absolutely no familiarity with the character whatsoever, it may seem like an odd choice to add his corner of the Marvel Universe into the same fold as the likes of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy. But, that could very well be the point of the whole endeavor.
Our own Erik Davis already provided an overview of the new film in his review, and Comics on Film largely shares all of his sentiments. Instead, we thought we’d focus on how it fits into the MCU, and what exactly it brings to the table of one of the most popular shared narrative universes running today.
As Erik rightfully notes, Doctor Strange represents something of an evolution of the films of Marvel Studios. While at the conceptual level the film isn’t particularly unique due to its status as an origin story with a villain aiming to destroy the world, the ways in which the new film succeeds is in the ways it plays around the broad strokes of what we expect from a Marvel hero’s debut outing.
In addition to largely succeeding by being visually interesting for virtually every second of its runtime, Doctor Strange represents forward momentum in the expansion of genres within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As readers of Marvel Comics know all too well, the comic book medium and mainline Marvel Universe itself merely account for the medium and the setting: virtually any kind of story can be told within the pages of a Marvel comic, as fans who’ve gone from reading an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man to Journey Into Mystery in one sitting can likely attest.
In the case of the Doctor Strange movie, it represents the widening of the MCU’s “umbrella” of storytelling, in a similar way that Guardians of the Galaxy represented in 2014. Yes, these are characters with superpowers, but invoking the mystic brings with it an entirely different flavor to the proceedings, and Doctor Strange as a film certainly benefits handsomely from that. The expansion of the genre perfectly extends into the next point…
New Flavors of Heroism and Villainy
There are definite similarities between Stephen Strange and someone like Tony Stark: both are brilliant at what they do, both endure a physical trauma that changes the direction of their lives, and both ultimately find new purpose by dedicating themselves to a different aim altogether. Still, though, if you wanted to compare the flavor of adversaries that Strange faces off against in his film with those found in the Avengers films or those heroes’ solo encounters, they’re decidedly more recognizable. Even in the case of Thor, who himself deals with otherworldly monsters on a very regular basis.
The threat represented by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) in this film, for instance, makes very clear that Strange — and those limited few like him — are the only ones truly equipped to handle what he plans for the world, and its potential collision with the likes of the nearly all-powerful evil force that is Dormammu. While all of the actors on the cast and director Scott Derrickson to a very good job in never making the film so, well, strange to the point of making it fundamentally unrecognizable, the movie also doesn’t shy away from the fact that — very much like the main character — we’ve now stepped into a larger world. Virtually every threat presented in Doctor Strange is an existential one: if the heroes fail to stop the forces of evil, then it’s all over for everyone on our planet, and potentially everyone in the entire universe (and more!).
With that kind of threat, though, also comes a uniquely powerful counterbalancing force for good, represented by the sorcerers. Adding more to the tapestry of the entire MCU, Doctor Strange is a satisfying first look at the layer underneath the world we already know, and opens up just as much possibility for the reaches of heroism as it does for the depths of villainy.
Broader Options, to Infinity and Beyond
The addition of Strange’s brand of heroism also makes clear, though, that the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its collective forces for good also now have access to a powerful new weapon in their combined arsenal. Over the past eight years, we’ve grown accustomed to bleeding edge technology that turns normal people into flying superweapons, demigods from other worlds that can harness elemental power, enhanced super soldiers that perform death-defying feats of strength and speed at every turn, a giant beast built of incarnate rage and power, giant sentient trees that should not be crossed the wrong way, and even a raccoon with a giant laser gun.
With the release of Doctor Strange, the MCU adds a valuable addition to the arsenal in the form of a gifted practitioner of the mystic arts: a character who is destined to become the Sorcerer Supreme. While it’s only natural that Thanos will put all of the heroes to the test (especially once he gets his hands on some powerful artifacts), the forces of good are looking diverse, powerful, and very, very interesting. I can’t even imagine just how mind-blowing it will be by the time we reach Avengers: Infinity War and its as-yet untitled sequel, with a battle that moves deftly between them all: Rocket firing his giant gun from the shoulder of Iron Man? Groot growing a path for Captain America to run off of and throw his shield? Star-Lord using his thrusters to increase the impact of a kick from Spider-Man? Doctor Strange manipulating portals and time to help Drax do some of his trademark “destroying?”
Gamora and the Winter Soldier trading blows on a disciple of Thanos? Black Widow and Yondu running interference while dishing out some punishment? The possibilities are mind-boggling, and Doctor Strange adds to the overall promise of just how diverse the power-set will be when all of the heroes we’ve spent so much time getting to know finally get to unify against the forces of Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet.
Still, though, as a movie by itself, Doctor Strange represents that new flavor that’s now been added to the wide, sweeping world(s) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Check it out, because you’ll probably be glad you did.
Chris Clow is a gamer, a comic book expert and former retailer, as well as a freelance contributor to The Huffington Post and Batman-On-Film.com, as well as host of the Comics on Consoles podcast. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.