“It isn’t about you,” is a line The Ancient One imparts onto Stephen Strange at a critical point in the film, “Doctor Strange.”
Most superhero origins are built on this guideline. An ordinary individual with not much stake in the grand scheme of things is granted special abilities, most of the time by accident. It’s only after obtaining this great power does this person finally see the world beyond themselves and dedicates their life to fighting injustice and safeguarding innocents above all else.
“Doctor Strange” recognizes this principle and seeks to find the spiritual and metaphysical layers embedded within. The result is a surprisingly thematically deep film about accepting failure, death, time, and the lack of control in an uncontrollable universe.
Plus, it showcases the most inventive set-pieces and visual eye-candy ever conceived in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but deeply arrogant neurosurgeon. After a car accident destroys the use of his hands, he spends his entire fortune desperately trying to heal his hands and reclaim his career.
When Western medicine fails him, he ends up at the Kamar-Taj in Nepal where he is introduced to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a Sorcerer Supreme who teaches Strange how to master the mystic arts, which includes travelling to alternate realities, drawing energy from parallel dimensions, and casting incantations.
As Strange trains under the Ancient One’s tutelage, he also learns of the purpose of sorcerers’, the powerful Eye of Agamotto, and a man named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student who has been tempted by the power from the Dark Dimension and seeks to help its ruler (whose identity I won’t spoil) absorb our reality.
Strange must decide whether to return to his life of fortune and glory or use his newfound abilities to defend the universe.
I have read many reviews that called Stephen Strange a Tony Stark-archetype. If you were to look only at the superficial similarities between the two, then that would be the case. They are both egotistical, highly successful white men with goatees who are swiftly knocked down a peg and learn humility and how to use their gifts for the greater good.
However, the near-death experiences that push both these men into seeing the error of their ways is where the two start to diverge. Tony Stark’s superpower is his mind. The Iron Man armor is simply an extension of that power. As seen in “Iron Man 3,” even when stripped of his allies and gadgets, Tony uses his ingenuity and intelligence to solve his problems.
However, his survivor’s guilt often pushes him into creating a problem while trying to solve another. He is a character caught in an endless shame spiral because of his desire to always try to make things right, even if it’s at the expense of others.
Stephen Strange, on the other hand, is completely lost and alone after his car accident. Even Tony still had his fortune, gadgets, and celebrity status at the end of every “Iron Man” and “Avengers” film. Whereas Tony builds upon himself, Stephen has to open up his mind and forget everything he thought he knew. Even in doing that, he still retains his intelligence.
This is where Cumberbatch especially shines in the role. He understands this is a man who takes knowledge seriously and once his mind his opened up to the multiverse, his desire to learn only intensifies.
Doctor Strange is a rare superhero in an ever-expanding landscape of superheroes on the big-screen, in that he would rather use his powers in an intelligent manner to resolve a situation than resort to violence.
Strange’s character arc is one of the best in the entire MCU. As a neurosurgeon, he exerts control not just over his colleagues, but over the fates of his patients. His skills may have saved the lives of many people, but he doesn’t perform these feats altruistically.
He prides himself on controlling fate and stopping death itself. His greatest fear is failure, which is why he is unable to cope with the destruction of his hands. He initially sees this physical world as all that will ever be.
Early in the film, he laments humanity’s existence as a “tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.” He feels almost atheistic in his worldview.
This is not to say the film condemns those who don’t follow a religion. Strange is always a man of reason, but slowly understands there are forces in and beyond the universe that can’t be controlled or explained.
Co-writer/director Scott Derrickson is an openly religious person, and that viewpoint has serviced several of his previous films (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister, and Deliver Us From Evil”), so it’s no surprise that he injects a dose of spirituality into a film whose source material leaned heavily into the supernatural.
On analyzing Doctor Strange, I find that Derrickson was the best choice to helm this film. Not just because of his visual eye (the ways in which he has his actors block in certain scenes conveys good visual storytelling), but because his personal views on time, death, and the metaphysical.
The Dark Dimension is a place that exists outside of time and space. It’s a universe where death is non-existent. Kaecilius is a man who lost his entire family before becoming a sorcerer, and he sees death and time as insults, which is why he seeks to have the Dark Dimension absorb this reality.
While I can’t go to further in depth without getting into spoilers, I do find it interesting that there are several characters who know that there is a plane of existence beyond ours where the astral form goes after the physical form dies, yet are still afraid of death.
Part of Strange’s journey is realizing that no matter how many outcomes are prevented, death remains as the one inevitablility.
The line, “It isn’t about you,” isn’t just a jab at Strange’s ego. It allows him to see how important everyone and everything is in the world. The universe wastes nothing, and recognizing time as an ally as opposed to an enemy ultimately helps Strange realize how everything is sacred.
Again, without giving too much away, not only does the film subvert Marvel’s third act climax trope like “Captain America: Civil War” before it, the third act is a culmination of Strange’s arc; showing just how far he’s willing to go to protect his world without resorting to violence.
None of this depth means the film is without fault. As much as Kaecilius is thematically important to Strange’s acceptance of death and failure, he’s not as interesting as a character as he is an idea. Right after it seemed Marvel finally overcame its villain problem in Zemo from “Civil War,” it is right back at one-dimensional bad guys who want to destroy the world.
Rachael McAdams’ character seems to only function as a tie to Strange’s previous life and only appears when it is convenient for the plot. It’s a thankless role and McAdams does her best. The only hope now is that Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargil acknowledge this misgiving going forward and seek to rectify it in the future.
Also, several characters Strange creates bonds with, Wong (Benedict Wong) and especially Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), don’t quite work on the emotional level the filmmakers intended.
Wong’s role is updated for the 21st century. Instead of being Doctor Strange’s Asian man-servant, he’s now a librarian of mystical books and an ally to Strange. While I salute the film for abandoning an offensive stereotype from the 60’s (the Ancient One’s whitewashing deserves its own article), there isn’t enough of him in the film.
As for Mordo, though his rigid belief system is an interesting counterpart to Strange’s more flexible one, the comradery between the two feels like it is only scratching the surface. The film also has Mordo undergoing a crisis of faith in the latter half, but it just ends up being an interesting concept that is never given the full attention it deserves.
Though we certainly haven’t seen the last of him, it’s a shame we have to count on future installments to flesh out Mordo properly.
However, whatever faults lie in the story or characters, one element of the film that absolutely works is the visuals. You may have already seen the trailers that feature buildings twisting and folding into each other, a la “Inception.” Those are just the tip of the iceberg.
I never thought Doctor Strange creator Steve Ditko’s psychedelic artwork would translate well into film, but the filmmakers pulled it off spectacularly. There is one sequence in the first act where Strange is sent on a trip through the multiverse that begs to be seen in 3D.
In fact, this is the first Marvel production I would recommend viewing in that format. It enhances all the mind-bending, trippy, kaleidoscopic visuals the film has to offer.
Lastly, Marvel Studios has garnered much-deserved criticism for safe, generic, and unmemorable musical scores. (For example, “Guardians of the Galaxy” may have a great soundtrack, but its score is forgettable). Fortunately, they found a great composer in Michael Giacchino, who delivers a solid score that sounds like progressive rock in the vein of Pink Floyd with a dash of Eastern influence.
It’s definitely the most inventive musical composition in a Marvel film to date, and I can’t wait to hear what Giacchino has cooked up for “Spider-Man: Homecoming” in July.
It may have taken Marvel Studios a decade to get “Doctor Strange” in theaters, but it could not have come at a better time. With the superhero genre at its peak in popularity, there is more desire to have each film stand out from the crowd.
While it doesn’t upend the genre or completely reinvent it going forward, “Doctor Strange” stands on its own and weaves a spiritual tale about finding strength within suffering, understanding death makes life meaningful, and giving oneself over to a high purpose in the world.
Life may be temporary, but its fragility and preciousness makes it all the more magical.
Final Rating: 7 out of 10