If there’s any doubt left in your mind about Doctor Strange being Marvel’s strangest movie to date, then I’ll officially confirm that it is indeed their strangest, but also incredibly weird and wild in all the best ways.
This is a film that takes you to distant dimensions and to other planes of existence. It features magical portals for traveling anywhere the mind can conjure, as well as masters, sorcerers, deadly spells, a cloak with its own personality, creepy villainous eye makeup and, most importantly, a great introduction to Marvel’s mystical universe, complete with names you won’t be able to pronounce and bonkers imagery you won’t be able to forget.
If there’s any Marvel movie that will immediately inspire you to go back and read the comics, it’s this one.
Meet Doctor Strange
Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is like a rebooted Tony Stark in ways; he’s got Stark’s smarts, ego and arrogance, only he’s a doctor whose mystical powers are no accident or controlled with a powered suit — they’re taught and discovered from within. But it is a horrible car accident that leaves Strange with permanent damage to his hands, essentially ending the career he lives for. While on an expensive and never ending quest to find a way to put himself back together using science, he discovers the answer may instead be mystical.
Tipped off to a remote location somewhere in the mountains of Kathmandu, it’s there he finds a Celtin woman known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who runs a sort of sorcerer school training those deemed worthy in the ways of sorcery — all of it in an effort to defend earth from outside forces who seek to harm it or its people. The Ancient One reluctantly decides to train Strange with assistance from Mordo (Chiwetel Ejofor), a fellow sorcerer, and of course they all find themselves defending an attack on the planet in no time.
So quick, in fact, that Doctor Strange is one of Marvel’s most tightly paced movies. It breezes by at just under two hours, and the shorter runtime definitely works in favor of the story despite how heady it is and how many rules are buried within. The last half flies — we’re thrown from upside-down battles on the mirror-reality streets of New York City to psychedelic time-twisty showdowns in another dimension. All of it is just frenetic eye candy that’s elevated even moreso if you see it in IMAX 3D, where it really pops.
Doctor Strange is our freakadelic introduction to Marvel’s mystical universe, one that exists both on earth and away from it, in another reality or dimension. And with the ability to stage massive battles in mirror realities that don’t impact actual reality on earth, it opens the door for all kinds of visual inventiveness and action without sacrificing millions of lives.
A Quick Guide to Understanding What the Hell Is Going On in Doctor Strange
Let us pop into the mirror-reality of this review for some helpful tips on understanding the rules of Doctor Strange. This will present various plot spoilers, so feel free to skip ahead. This should not impact your experience of this review.
Here are five quick things to know about the rules of the film that will help make sense of it going in…
— Mirror reality: Some fights, like the opening scene and two battles near the end, are contained within a mirror reality created by a sorcerer so that the action is contained in a sort of box that does not impact actual reality.
— Astral plane: Some sequences involve the souls of characters exiting their body to examine what’s happening around them. There’s actually a fight scene that occurs between two souls outside their bodies, if you can believe it. Oh, they go there. Our first introduction to the astral plane can be seen in the image above.
— Portals: One neat trick utilized in the film is the ability to conjure a portal to anywhere on earth or beyond just by thinking about the location. This is used in so many different ways; as a means to travel and as a means to disperse with villains. It’s pretty cool.
— Spell weapons: The weapons our characters fight with in the film are typically conjured through magic. It’s not really explained how exactly one learns to do this (we just see Doctor Strange studying a bunch of books housed in a sort of master library throughout the movie), but the ability to continually switch up the mechanics of a fight is one of the unique aspects of the film.
— Time bending: The ability to manipulate time itself also factors heavily into the film via a tool called the Eye of Agamotto. Strange uses this tool in specific situations, and it may also hold a major clue that directly ties Strange to the larger cinematic universe and another villain we’re still waiting to see show up in a bigger way: Thanos.
The stakes are still high, though, as at any time monstrous villainous powers from other dimensions or realms could break into our reality and wreak havoc, which is why Strange and his cohorts exist: to protect us from those kinds of forces. It’s almost as if they operate somewhere between the MCU’s other heroes, and while Doctor Strange definitely feels like its own contained story, those following along with Marvel’s ever expanding cinematic universe will clearly see groundwork being laid with regards to Strange’s world eventually colliding with the likes of both the Guardians and the Avengers.
Doctor Strange continues Marvel’s streak of assembling fantastic ensemble casts, as the Strange crew boasts multiple Oscar wins and nominations shared between the fivesome of Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mads Mikkelsen. All of them are strong, delivering convincing turns as their respective characters even if we could’ve used a little more depth to both McAdams’ nurse and Mikkelsen’s villain.
The most fascinating of the characters apart from Strange, whose selfish-to-selfless arc will feel familiar to those who’ve seen the original Iron Man, is actually Mordo. It’s his arc that kind of runs opposite to Strange, and future appearances could bring us the most complex and conflicted character since Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. Here’s hoping Ejiofer’s role in Doctor Strange is the beginning of a multi-picture storyline for him because more than anything (and especially if you stay through the credits) you’ll be hankering for more Mordo when it all wraps up.
Doctor Strange is a heady film that makes you work harder to process its plot than any previous Marvel adventure, and its action sequences are so trippy and mind-bending that at times it will leave you in awe of what you’re watching unfold in front of your eyes. Much credit goes to director Scott Derrickson for competently and compellingly steering us down a very wacky rabbit hole, and to his cowriters C. Robert Cargill and Jon Spaihts for making sense of the madness in a way that delivers a brainy experience at the movies, but also a fun and accessible one, too.
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