In the first half of the 1960s, Marvel Comics experienced an unprecedented creative explosion from Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and other creators. From 1961 to 1966, Marvel debuted the likes of the Fantastic Four, Ant-Man, Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, Nick Fury, the Wasp, Dr. Strange, The Avengers, the X-Men, Daredevil, Silver Surfer and Black Panther. Fifty years later, every major property or character from that era had appeared in a major live-action film. Except for Dr. Strange.
One could argue that the storyline of Dr. Strange, with its supernatural elements, magic, monsters and alternate dimensions, was too weird, too geeky, too off-putting for mainstream audiences. Beyond that, the character was always a strict second or third-string character in the Marvel stable, despite a rabid cult following. But these arguments could be levelled against so many characters from Thor to Ant-Man to Guardians of the Galaxy, all of whom had become household names by 2016.
In reality, Marvel Studios played the long-game with their Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Thor (Branagh, 2011) had introduced magic and fantasy to the MCU, but the studio hedged its bets by defining it as highly advanced science. Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014) was a successful adaptation of a niche property, with weird, colourful sets and characters, but that film was strictly science-fiction or possibly Star Wars-esque space fantasy. These films, along with the rest of the MCU, had gradually normalized the geekiest, silliest concepts from Marvel Comics to great success.
It took 13 MCU films, but audiences were finally ready to accept and embrace the supernatural side of Marvel, with pure magic and psychedelic visuals. After years of incremental set up, it was about time for Dr. Strange.
The first Marvel superhero of the ’60s was actually a character named Doctor Droom, created by Lee, Kirby and Ditko. Appearing in several issues of Amazing Adventures in 1961, Droom was a man from the West who travelled to the East and gained magical abilities from a dying elderly master. The process changed Droom’s features to a “fu manchu”-inspired racial stereotype of a mystical Asian man (yikes!). Not surprisingly, Droom quickly disappeared from Marvel Comics, but some of the seeds of his origin lingered.
Two years later, Lee and Ditko reimagined Droom as Doctor Stephen Strange for Strange Tales #110 (July 1963). Strange is a brilliant but arrogant surgeon who injures his hands in a car accident. Desperate for a cure, he trains under the mystical Ancient One, the Sorcerer Supreme of this dimension, in Nepal to become a Master of the Mystic Arts. Basing himself in his Sanctum Sanctorum in New York City, Strange battles the likes of Baron Mordo (a student of the Ancient One with evil intentions), Dormammu (the ruler of an evil dimension intent on invading Earth), and other magical or supernatural threats.
Stan Lee typically claimed a lot of credit for creating the most popular Marvel characters, but even he admitted that Dr. Strange was the brainchild of Steve Ditko. The stories were immediately lauded for Ditko’s stunning surrealist visuals. They were a huge hit amongst college students as psychedelia and eastern mysticism became popular in the late-’60s. Doctor Strange was unique among Marvel heroes, offering stories that explored supernatural concepts. Although never Marvel’s most popular character, the stories developed a loyal cult following among certain creative people that has persisted over the decades.
Strange Tales was renamed Dr. Strange in 1968, but the series only lasted 15 more issues. In the early ’70s, the character became a founding member of the Defenders, inherited the title of Sorcerer Supreme, and experienced a revival in the pages of Marvel Feature and Marvel Premiere. The revival was popular enough to launch a new ongoing series, which continued with minor interruptions from 1974 until 1996. After the 1996 cancellation, Dr. Strange didn’t star in his own ongoing series for 19 years.
Still, the character was extremely popular among Marvel writers during that time, and reportedly every writer made a rejected pitch for a new series at some point. The character did not disappear, however. In 2005, a limited series retold his origin with heavy inspiration from The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999). In 2006-2007, another limited series, The Oath, was critically-acclaimed and directly inspired a key sequence in the film. Brian Michael Bendis included Dr. Strange in many of his popular Avengers stories from 2007 to 2012. Finally, in 2015 a new ongoing series launched in anticipation of the film adaptation. This history demonstrates how niche the popularity of Dr. Strange was, even among comic book fans, and the reluctance to adapt it to film.
But adaptations have been attempted over the years. In 1978, Philip DeGuere wrote and directed Dr. Strange starring Peter Hooten, a television film for CBS that was intended as a backdoor pilot for a television series. It was not well-received, and the series didn’t move forward. In 1986, Bob Gale, fresh off his success writing Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985), completed a draft of a Doctor Strange film that was never produced. Alex Cox and Stan Lee also wrote a screenplay in 1989 that was never produced. Sony Pictures acquired the film rights in the ’90s, and developed the project with several writers, including Wes Craven and David S. Goyer. It sold the rights to Dimension Films/Miramax in the early-’00s, and it continued to develop with Goyer. But no one could successfully crack the code for the film.
Marvel Studios launched in 2005 and bought the film rights to every available property, including Doctor Strange. The studio was approached by Guillermo del Toro and Neil Gaiman to direct and write, respectively, a Doctor Strange film, but Marvel turned them down. In March 2009, Marvel Studios began the Marvel Writers Project, hiring writers to develop treatments for lesser known characters. This was the first Marvel Studios effort on a Doctor Strange film, although it was still delayed for five years. Clearly the Marvel executives were waiting for the proper time to open up the supernatural side of the MCU.
In early 2014, Marvel Studios finally moved forward on the project. More actors, artists and technicians lobbied to be a part of Doctor Strange than any previous Marvel film. This once again demonstrates the passion of the property’s cult following over the preceding 50 years. Scott Derrickson, known largely for writing and directing horror films, spent his own money to write a 12-page scene based on The Oath limited series. He then hired professional artists to produce accompanying storyboards and animatics. The pitch won him the job of directing and co-writing the film for a July 2016 release date.
Derrickson and the Marvel producers reportedly selected Benedict Cumberbatch, best known for BBC’s Sherlock series at the time, as the number-one choice to star. Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts prevented his casting. After searching for a suitable replacement, nearly casting Joaquin Phoenix, the studio rearranged the production schedule and pushed back the release date four months to accommodate Cumberbatch’s schedule. This unusual move indicated the faith the filmmakers had in Cumberbatch for the role.
The cast was filled out with a remarkable array of acting talent, including the controversial choice of Tilda Swinton to play the Ancient One. I will delve into this controversy later. A great deal of work was devoted to capturing Ditko’s surrealist style on film, while also drawing influences from psychedelic art and M.C. Escher. The film also presented a unique kaleidoscopic visualization of magic, which reached its apex in a sequence that expanded upon the stunning city-folding of Inception (Nolan, 2010).
Praising the visuals in a blockbuster film often feels like damning with faint praise, but the visuals of Doctor Strange are genuinely bold, exciting and unique. The films of the MCU had previously been criticized, perhaps unfairly, for a uniform, conventional visual language. Those criticisms were certainly not levelled against this film, which swings for the fences stylistically. Doctor Strange is also the third MCU film in a row to subvert the expectations of blockbuster climaxes, which had too often featured casual citywide destruction and implied mass casualties. This film’s subversion of the blockbuster climax is the most ingenious by far. In fact, the entire second half of the film is full of visually-stunning, ingenious set-pieces. It also takes its time setting up the main character, not rushing to incorporate him into the larger MCU.
Despite these positives, the most common criticism against Doctor Strange regards it central character arc, another “jerk is humbled” story that Marvel Studios perfected in Iron Man (Favreau, 2008). I believe Doctor Strange improves and takes further this particular redemptive arc. But even if that’s not the case, a familiar character arc was necessary for the film’s success. Deadpool (Miller, 2016) was a fresh and original in terms of humour and adult content, but it hung these unique aspects on a very conventional superhero origin story. If audiences were going to accept Deadpool‘s vulgar, hilarious approach, they needed something familiar to guide them in. Similarly, the magic, alternate dimensions and stunning visuals of Doctor Strange — everything that makes it feel fresh and exciting — required a relatively basic central arc to anchor audiences in familiarity. The resulting film is fresh, fun and exciting, with an almost-overqualified cast, incredible visuals, intriguing philosophy, and the most inventive third act in the MCU thus far. After so much waiting, it was the perfect time for Doctor Strange.
Doctor Strange opens with a beautiful new Marvel Studios logo and fanfare. The logo transitions from script pages to concept art to film scenes as it moves through a three-dimensional logo. The logo and score by Michael Giacchino replace the old version, featuring a score by Brian Tyler, which debuted before Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013). The film then begins with Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his acolytes invading the library of Kamar-Taj, decapitating the librarian, and stealing pages from a book. They’re confronted by the hooded Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), whom Kaecilius calls a hypocrite, and are chased outside into the middle of London. The Ancient One traps them in what we later learn is the Mirror Dimension, and then the real fun begins.
The characters fight with sparking, yellow strands of energy. As they do, the buildings around them pulsate and reform in a gorgeous kaleidoscopic effect that Derrickson refers to as fractal patterning. Gravity also tilts, with characters falling onto and running up the sides of the buildings as they fold and reform. Kaecilius and his followers escape through a portal, and the Ancient One leaves the Mirror Dimension, walking past people on the street who are unaware that a magical battle has just occurred in a parallel dimension. The sequence is visually fascinating and excites viewers for what is to come. It was necessary to begin so strongly with magical visuals, because the next stretch of the film is surprisingly grounded with much smaller-scale dramatics.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is introduced casually performing brain surgery while answering musical trivia questions. Later, his colleague and former romantic partner, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), asks Strange to consult on an emergency room patient with a gunshot wound to the head pronounced dead by Dr. West (Michael Stuhlbarg). Strange immediately recognizes an error, and skillfully removes the bullet to save the patient while lording it over West.
These scenes are quick and fairly standard set up, although the surgery setting adds a unique flavour. Strange is brilliant but cocky, taking only cases that will boost his reputation. As Christine says, “Stephen, everything is about you.” He is a surgeon version of Tony Stark early in Iron Man. He returns home to don a tuxedo and one of his many, many watches before recklessly driving to an award ceremony in his honour. As he drives, he discusses possible cases with his assistant, even looking at x-rays as he drives. And then the distracted driver crashes. The crash is fast, brutal and visceral, slowing down only to highlight the dashboard collapsing to crush his hands. Strange wakes up later in the hospital, with Christine and West informing him that he suffered irreversible nerve damage to his hands.
This begins the process of fundamentally breaking Strange down. He can no longer be a surgeon, the accident has robbed him of the success that defined him. He spends all his money on failed experimental surgeries, and drives Christine away by lashing out from his depressive self-loathing. The personal trauma experienced by Strange is the basis for his character arc, and his identity-shattering tragedy is both dramatically credible and relatable. Anyone who has experienced a serious physical, mental, or emotional trauma can relate to his experience. Indeed, in a way, the film plays like a superhero version of a New Age self-help tale: a person hits rock bottom, exhausts all standard solutions, seeks a mystical spiritual solution, submits to a higher power and has an awakening.
But more to the point, Doctor Strange is about the traumatic moments when our lives stop, or are seriously put on hold, and we are forced to re-evaluate our goals and priorities. When faced with how fleeting life and success can be, Strange must determine over the course of the film how he will spend his remaining time. He begins as an arrogant, self-centred gloryhound then, through this trauma, he discovers a new path in life that leads him to become a selfless hero. This kind of redemptive, life-changing character journey is nothing new to superhero films, or storytelling in general, but there’s a commendable relatability of themes in this film. It not only helps viewers to sympathize with Strange, despite his tendency to be a huge jerk, but it grounds the film once it reaches the stunning set-pieces in the second half.
Out of desperation, Strange speaks to Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a man who somehow recovered from a severe spinal injury. Pangborn directs Strange to Kamar-Taj, which leads him to Kathmandu. The film actually shot scenes in Nepal, which lends some credibility and nice imagery to these scenes. Strange is mugged in an alley, but saved by Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). In the scuffle, Strange’s last watch, given to him by Christine, is broken. His time, really his life, has been paused.
Mordo brings Strange to Kamar-Taj to meet the Ancient One. He questions her about the medical techniques she used to help Pangborn, but she recontextualizes advanced medicine into mysticism, harnessing energies and mind-over-matter. Strange is dismissive of the whole idea of spiritualism or a world beyond matter, and he worries that he spent his last money on nonsense. The Ancient One insists that his knowledge of the world is only a fraction of what exists, and then she knocks his astral form (a ghostly version of himself) temporarily out of his body. This experience opens him up to listen, but the Ancient One decides to send him on a journey through the multiverse to fully break him down.
This “magical mystery tour” sequence is an astonishing presentation of psychedelic images. Strange flies up above the Earth, sees a butterfly, then is dropped through a light tunnel that looks like an update of the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968). He falls through a giant eye, then experiences a dimension where hands grow out of his fingers and the rest of his body. He then flies through the Dark Dimension, adapted directly from Steve Ditko’s original artwork, which is coloured like a blacklight poster. He moves through the reflective quantum realm, last seen in Ant-Man (Reed, 2015). In fact the same visual effects house, Method Studios, created that trippy sequence in Ant-Man. Strange finally ends up floating in a colourful, cosmic void.
As this all happens, the Ancient One talks about the power of the mind and the insignificance of one person relative to the whole multiverse. These are precisely the visuals that one expects from a faithful adaptation of the Doctor Strange comics. One could view the sequence as a shallow, weightless parade of visual effects, but it has real meaning for Strange’s growth. And beyond that, the visuals are stunning enough to justify the sequence.
When he returns to his own reality, totally broken down, he begs the Ancient One to teach him. She eventually agrees, and Mordo shows Strange to his room. He is given a slip of paper that says “Shamballa”, which he thinks is a mantra. Mordo replies “It’s the wifi password. We’re not savages.” This is not only a solid joke but, after what Strange just experienced, it brings the story back down to Earth and ensures that nothing is taken too seriously.
The next stretch of the film, Strange’s training montage, is exceptionally heavy on exposition. It’s necessary, however, so that the second half can soar so spectacularly. Strange is slow to begin, letting his broken hands and fear of failure hold him back from true success. But, after the Ancient One strands him on Mount Everest to push him to successfully conjure a portal, Strange begins to excel.
He voraciously consumes every book he can get from the library, now overseen by Wong (Benedict Wong) after Kaecilius decapitated his predecessor. Strange advances quickly, even mastering astral projection to allow his ghostly spirit to study throughout the night as his body sleeps. The timeline of his training seems too short, with Strange achieving in months what would likely take years, but it is a necessary leap of faith. Also, as demonstrated later, Strange remains a novice sorcerer in this film. Mordo teaches him that the Ancient One’s origin and long life are a mystery, and he also teaches about magical artifacts. Curious, Strange takes the Eye of Agamotto, a necklace with a pendant containing a glowing, green stone, and uses it. The Eye can manipulate time, allowing Strange to speed up, slow down, stop, or reverse time at will. After practicing on an apple, he uses the Eye to restore the pages stolen by Kaecilius at the start of the film, and learns about the Dark Dimension. This kicks the spectacular second half, and the plot of the film, into high gear.
Before I look at that, however, I want to address the controversy around the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. Derrickson and his collaborators loved the comics, but felt uneasy about the depiction of the Ancient One and Wong. The Ancient One is the stereotypical Western idea of a wise, elderly mystic, while Wong is a stereotypical subservient Asian butler. These characters existed for decades in the comics relatively unquestioned. In adapting them to a film for the 2010s, however, the filmmakers were concerned that the characters would be viewed as stereotypical, at best, or racist, at worst.
Therefore, in the case of Wong, the character was elevated to an authoritative, knowledgeable master who looked down on and humbled Strange whenever possible. The Ancient One was trickier, since he was already a powerful, authoritative figure in comics but in a problematic, racially-charged way. This was viewed as a no-win situation, with both adhering to or diverging from the source material likely to cause an uproar. Derrickson considered casting an Asian woman but, given the Ancient One’s morally complex turn later in the film, he was concerned about playing into Asian “dragon lady” stereotypes. And so, as is often the case when faced with a potentially racially-charged character, the filmmakers retreated to whiteness.
To their credit, they changed a male character to a female character, which is rare in Hollywood. But they were also rightfully charged with “whitewashing” a historically Asian character, something that is far too common in Hollywood history. Personally I love Swinton’s performance, and I think she is one of the greatest character actors working today. But a great performance does not fix the erasure of a key Asian character or the inability of the screenwriters to satisfactorily alter the character while preserving the race, as with Wong. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the Ancient One is traditionally modelled after Tibetan monks. Depicting a prominent Tibetan would adversely affect the film’s performance in China, the fastest-growing film market in the world. Whether this factored into the character change is hard to say, but it adds a new dimension to an already complicated issue. Regardless, the Ancient One is a white woman in this film.
The second half of Doctor Strange features five excellent set-pieces separated by well-acted character scenes. Many blockbusters fall victim to conventional third acts, which too-often ride the momentum of earlier character-building as they devolve into CGI-heavy battles. Thus, the overall strength of most of these films comes from the strong first two acts making the weaker, action-packed third-act meaningful. In Doctor Strange, the second half is the strongest.
Kaecilius sees time or atrophy as his enemy, or as an insult. While he is studying at Kamar-taj, he discovers that the Ancient One draws power from the Dark Dimension, which exists outside of time, to prolong her life. He feels betrayed, since she forbids anyone to access the Dark Dimension, and he attempts to circumvent her. Kaecilius makes a deal for immortality with Dormammu, the ruler of the Dark Dimension, in exchange for destroying Earth’s three protective Sanctums (in New York, London and Hong Kong), sacrificing the Earth to the Dark Dimension.
Revelations about the Ancient One drawing power from the Dark Dimension upset Strange insofar as he resents being denied such knowledge, but he’s pragmatic enough to understand. Mordo, on the other hand, has followed the Ancient One with rigid, fundamentalist faith. He is shaken to his core and sees the Ancient One’s abuse of her power as a betrayal, much like Kaecilius. This establishes an interesting dynamic between Strange, the Ancient One, Kaecilius and Mordo, with each approaching the concept of time and the proper use of magic from a different perspective.
All of these revelations occur as Kaecilius begins his assault on the Sanctums. He destroys the London Sanctum, which blows Strange from Kamar-Taj into the New York Sanctum. Kaecilius attacks that location next, and Strange attempts to hold him back. The sequence features a lot of humour, mostly around Strange’s relative inexperience, and nice visual gags. Strange conjures magical shields on each hand, only to have one flicker out. He attacks physically, but Kaecilius manipulates gravity, disorienting Strange. Strange grabs an imposing magical relic to use, which causes Kaecilius to pause momentarily until he realizes that Strange doesn’t know how to use it. Strange succeeds by using his wits and with the help of the Cloak of Levitation, a sentient cape that comes to his aid. Even so, Strange is stabbed by Lucian (Scott Adkins), one of Kaecilius’ men, and must retreat to his old hospital.
He asks Christine for help, pulling her into an operating room. Strange passes out on the table, but then appears in astral form to advise her on the surgery. This scene is directly out of The Oath limited series and was the scene that earned Derrickson the directing job. Unlike the comic, however, this turns into an inventive action sequence. Lucian follows Strange into the hospital in his astral form, and the two characters fight on the ghostly Astral Plane while Christine operates. Christine cannot see the fight unfolding around her, but some items in the room are occasionally bumped.
Again, McAdams is underserved in this role, but she plays these scenes, as someone with no idea what’s going on, very well. Ultimately, Christine defibrillates Strange’s body, which powers up his astral form enough to kill Lucian. After, Strange sincerely apologizes to Christine and returns to the Sanctum. But Lucian’s death seriously affects him since, as a doctor, he vowed to do no harm. He refuses to kill again, and commits to find other ways to defeat Kaecilius. This leads to the next three set-pieces.
Kaecilius attempts to destroy the New York Sanctum again. At the last second, Strange encases everyone in the Mirror Dimension to prevent any destruction in actual reality. His plan saves the Sanctum, but traps him and Mordo in the Mirror Dimension with Kaecilius. They run out of the building into New York City, which Kaecilius begins to magically fold and break apart in a kaleidoscopic tour-de-force. The fractaling, folding and shuffling of New York was immediately compared to the city-folding sequence in Inception. But this sequence takes that basic idea and multiplies it a hundredfold.
Strange and Mordo are chaotically chased through an increasingly surreal, twisted and shuffled version of the city until the Ancient One arrives to fight Kaecilius. She confirms her use of Dark Dimension energy, and Kaecilius stabs her. Strange rushes her to the hospital in the real dimension but, despite Christine and Dr. West’s best efforts, they lose her on the table. As she dies, the Ancient One’s astral form leaves her body. Strange follows her, and she extends her final moments long enough to have a conversation with Strange.
Facing Dormammu [Amazon]
This is the seminal moment for Strange’s character. The Ancient One explains that Pangborn constantly uses magic to heal his severed spine, and that Strange could do the same for his hands. So, he must decide whether to go back to his old life or to commit to something bigger than himself. Even for the Ancient One, time feels short and eventual death gives life meaning. So the question is: how will he use his limited time? And finally, in the moment that truly changes Strange’s perspective, the Ancient One makes it clear that “it’s not about you.”
The Ancient One dies, and Strange regroups with Mordo to protect the Hong Kong Sanctum from Kaecilius. When they arrive, however, the Sanctum and a section of Hong Kong are destroyed, Wong is dead, and the Dark Dimension is spilling into our dimension. Faced with being too late, Strange uses the Eye of Agamotto to reverse time and undo the city’s destruction in a brilliant subversion of blockbuster trope. Strange and Mordo break out of the rewinding spell, as do Kaecilius and his acolytes, leading to a fight. The sorcerers battle each other as the destruction of the city rewinds all around them in another stunning visual sequence. Even Michael Giacchino’s score plays in reverse to add to the disorienting feeling of the rewind.
Marvel Studios had been criticized for its films too often ending with wanton destruction and mass, unobserved deaths. The climaxes of several of its films act as a response to these criticisms. Ant-Man ended with a miniature climactic battle in a little girl’s bedroom. Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016) sneakily hinted at a major climactic battle, only to avoid it in favour of a smaller-scale, emotionally-charged fight between three men. Doctor Strange tops both by featuring conventional destruction, but then literally un-destroying a city.
Kaecilius breaks Strange’s spell, freezing time just before the Sanctum is fully restored. Mordo and a revived Wong prepare to fight Kaecilius but Strange, still reeling from killing Lucian, cleverly thinks of another way to win.
The sequence that follows is the final masterstroke in an unbelievably strong second half of this film. Strange flies up into the Dark Dimension to confront its ruler, Dormammu, directly. The Dark Dimension exists beyond time, which is why Kaecilius wants to go there. Strange uses the Eye of Agamotto to create a time loop, then approaches Dormammu, who is voiced by Cumberbatch and depicted as a giant face with vertical ripples pulsing along it. Strange says “Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain,” and he is killed.
But then the time loop kicks in, reversing time back to before Strange approached. He faces Dormammu again, and again, and again. Each time Dormammu brutally kills Strange, and each time Strange comes back. It’s like a very short superhero version of Groundhog Day (Ramis, 1993). Dormammu exists in a Dimension without time, but now Strange has imprisoned him within this time loop. Either Dormammu agrees to bargain, or he lives within the time loop forever. If he chooses the latter, Strange will also live an eternity in the time loop, tortured by repeated deaths.
This is such a clever, unique climax to a superhero film, a battle of wits and wills rather than physicality and powers. Strange has grown and changed to the point where he’s willing to give his life, over and over again, to suffer and die for eternity in order to protect the people of Earth. This transition, from selfish to selfless, took Tony Stark many films to achieve, but it doesn’t feel rushed here. Strange is unwilling to take another life and outsmarts a timeless cosmic being. After many, many permutations, Dormammu finally relents. He agrees to take Kaecilius and his people into the Dark Dimension, and never invade Earth again. This kind of bargain also occurs in early Dr. Strange comics, and Dormammu spends the rest of his appearances trying to find a loophole in the agreement.
Strange returns to Earth, Kaecilius and his men are sucked into the Dark Dimension, and the destruction in Hong Kong is reversed. Wong is overjoyed, but Mordo is not. Still raw from the Ancient One’s lies, he’s upset that they manipulated natural law and time in order to win, and he chooses to leave. This sets up an interesting future conflict between Strange and Mordo. They are now former allies who have different points of view on using magic. Their conflict is ideological, and that could be exciting to watch.
Strange returns the Eye of Agamotto to Kamar-Taj, and Wong identifies it as an Infinity Stone. Strange then becomes the master of the New York Sanctum, ending his story in an interesting place. He’s very skilled, but clearly still has much to learn as a sorcerer. He looks at his broken watch, and his hands still shake. He’s still broken, he’s not yet rebuilt, but he has come a long way.
Doctor Strange is an excellent comic book film. It takes full advantage of the unique powers of its title character to create ingenious set-pieces filled with stunning, psychedelic visuals and unique concepts. Cities fold and change like a kaleidoscope, massive climactic destruction is rewound, and the hero defeats the ultimate villain by cleverly tricking him. The incredible visuals are grounded, however, in very relatable themes of growth and mortality following a personal trauma or tragedy. Strange defines himself by his skill and success as a surgeon, but then he shatters his hands. The film follows him as he is broken down, stripped of wealth, influence and his sense of reality, and then built back up as a selfless, reality-manipulating hero.
Doctor Strange also has interesting philosophical ideas about time and our lives. Dormammu lives outside of time, and Kaecilius wants to do the same. They want to destroy the system as it exists. Strange and the Ancient One understand the value of time, and its limits, but are willing to use it to their advantage when necessary. They can pragmatically work the system. Mordo, on the other hand, rigidly submits to time as natural law, and he’s horrified by any manipulation. He puts all of his faith into the system, accepting no variation. And so, Doctor Strange ends up being a surprisingly cerebral, emotionally-relatable film at its core, presented alongside some of the most exciting and unique blockbuster visuals in years.
Doctor Strange is a weird, risky film for Marvel Studios, one that it only made after establishing years of goodwill from more grounded films. It was a success, earning $233 million in North America and $678 million worldwide. For context, Doctor Strange was more successful than the first Captain America film and the first two Thor films. The visuals were universally praised, and the film was nominated for Best Visual Effects at the Academy Awards.
For Marvel Studios, it unlocked an entirely new side of the universe to explore. Doctor Strange allowed the MCU to start exploring real magic, supernatural threats and the multiverse. Despite this, Marvel Studios held back on a direct sequel to the film. The character appeared, and grew, through three other MCU films before Marvel finally announced Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Clearly once he became available, many Marvel creators wanted to use the character. Doctor Strange finally exists in the MCU, and it was about time.
Stan Lee Cameo Corner: Lee appears on a bus, laughing while reading the psychedelic cornerstone text The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley while Strange and Mordo fight in the Mirror Dimension. That is 28 cameos in 42 films.
• In the mid-credits, Strange enters larger Marvel Cinematic Universe by hosting Thor in his house. The scene, directed by Takia Waititi, teases Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017). Strange asks why Thor and Loki are in New York, and agrees to help them find their father, Odin.
• After the credits, Mordo confronts Pangborn. He cruelly takes away Pangborn’s magic, crippling him again, as part of his mission to reduce the number of sorcerers in the world.
• The film introduces Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Wong and Tilda Swinton, who would all reprise their roles
• Composer Michael Giacchino scores his first MCU film, as well as the new Marvel Studios fanfare
Marvel Cinematic Universe Viewing Order:
For optimal viewing, I reshuffle a lot of Phase 3 of the MCU. With this in mind, I bumped Doctor Strange a bit later in the viewing order. Believe me, it will work very well when it is all filled in:
1. Iron Man
2. Iron Man 2
4. The Incredible Hulk
5. Captain America: The First Avenger
6. The Avengers
7. Iron Man 3
8. Thor: The Dark World
9. Guardians of the Galaxy
10. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
11. Avengers: Age of Ultron
14. Captain America: Civil War
16. Doctor Strange
Next Time: Wolverine encounters a foe that few cinematic superheroes have ever faced: an ending.