Benedict Cumberbatch stars in the next MCU entry. This one is a partial origin story that introduces a lighter, funnier version of the future Sorcerer Supreme.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a brilliant, but arrogant surgeon. His life basically consists of performing intricate life saving procedures and being a dick to most people. He also works along side his former girlfriend/partner Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who is one of the few people that can stand him. One night, Strange makes a sequence of terrible decisions by driving a super expensive car on a super dangerous mountain road while reading medical files. As you’d expect, he wrecks the car in spectacular fashion. Strange awakes to find his hands, which were broken in the crash, mutilated by surgical procedures. Unable to accept his new limitations, he scours the globe to find a way to restore his hands. Eventually, he is pointed to the Kamar-Taj temple in Kathmandu.
Upon arriving, Strange meets Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who holds the title of “Sorcerer Supreme”. The Ancient One explains to Strange that the way to cure his injuries is to study and master magic. Strange’s ego and education prevent him from accepting that such a thing is possible, that is until the Ancient One sends Strange’s consciousness on a warped tour of reality. After seeing this, Strange wants to learn, but the Ancient One refuses to train him. So, Strange stays outside of Kamar-Taj for days until they finally relent and let him in. Once inside, Strange begins studying magic. Fortunately for him, the same intellect that allowed him to excel at medicine also aids him in starting to learn the mystic arts.
After some time at Kamar-Taj, and some extreme trials, Strange starts to get the hang of it. He also learns of some forbidden magic and Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), the former apprentice to the Ancient One. Kaecilius became enthralled by the power of Dormammu (also played by Cumberbatch). He believes that Dormammu offers freedom and knowledge that the Ancient One is hiding. Eventually, it comes out that the Ancient One was hiding some secrets, but that she was doing it out of necessity to fight against dark forces. Strange also becomes acquainted with the true purpose of the sorcerers. They protect the Earth from magical forces the way that the Avengers protect it from physical threats. This is done, in part, with the help of a magical force field surrounding the Earth. This force field is maintained by strategic buildings called Sanctum Sanctorums, which the sorcerers defend. When Kaecilius attacks Kamar-Taj and the Sanctums, Strange becomes entangled in the conflict.
Strange is able to use his still developing powers as well as two magical artifacts: the Cloak of Levitation and the Eye of Agammoto, to defend himself but, as a doctor, he wants nothing to do with fighting. He isn’t able to object for long after Kaecilius and his forces are able to kill the Ancient One. That leaves Strange, Mordo, and the rest of the scattered Kamar-Taj forces as the Earth’s only line of defense against the destruction of the Sanctums and the arrival of Dormammu.After initially failing to stop the destruction of the Chinese Sanctum, Strange gets the idea to use forbidden time manipulating magic to give them a chance to trap Dormammu. Aided by the Eye of Agammoto (which we find out later is an Infinity Gem), Strange restores the Sanctum and goes to confront Dormammu on his own. However, instead of trying to beat Dormammu, Strange loses to him. It’s soon revealed that Strange has trapped Dormammu in a Ground Hog Day style time loop. Whenever he kills Strange, time just resets and they do it all over again. Strange is willing to do this, to die over and over, until Dormammu relents and promises to free the Earth.
His plan succeeds and Earth is saved, but Mordo refuses to accept Strange’s use of forbidden magic and leaves. While Strange returns to Kamar-Taj to resume his training, it is revealed that Mordo has started his own mission: to rid the Earth of sorcerers.
What did I think?
There are lots of talking points from this movie. First and foremost, I think this movie was entertaining. It seems that Marvel really has mastered the fun-summer-movie genre and has found a way to make all these movies fit that formula. That being said, there were some things that were unique and strange about this particular movie. Some of that is because of how it was executed, but some of it was also likely because of its source material.
Doctor Strange exists in the weirder corners of the Marvel pantheon. He exists in the realm of reality warping and manipulating beings. So that naturally leads to some pretty strange looking visuals in the comics, which would be a challenge for any movie to pull off. I think that the effects staff did an admirable job at creating those kinds of effects. The sorcerer’s space warping abilities were on full display through most of the fights as they literally bent the world around them. Perhaps the most impressive part about that is that the movie was able to demonstrate this without making the action impossible to follow. But the most memorable moment was the visual display that happened when The Ancient One pushed Strange’s mind through reality and he cascaded freely through all kinds of dimensions that were formless, but still full of things.
My only problem with all of the visuals were that they were just heightened versions of things that we’ve already seen. We saw a version of the formless realities in Ant-Man when he went sub-atomic. The world bending visuals are easily identifiable as being based on the visuals in Inception. The magical weapons and shields look like more intricate versions of the laser based weapons that often appear in Iron Man movies. Granted, these visuals far outclass their predecessors. I looked around the theater when Strange was plummeting through reality and saw several people watching, literally, slack-jawed. Even so, it felt a little less special because the visuals felt like they were derivative of something else. For my personal preference, I would’ve also liked to see a bit more of the organic looking visuals we saw in the reality sequence and less of the more mechanical looking Inception style visuals that dominated the movie.
I mentioned in the intro that this was a “partial” origin story. That’s because the Doctor Strange that we see at the end of this movie is not the “Sorcerer Supreme” that we first meet in the comics. He has the cloak, but doesn’t guard/wield the Eye of Agammotto. Part of me believes that this was done because a fully realized Doctor Strange may be too powerful to work on the same plane as the rest of the Avengers, but that’s just a theory. It was odd to me that he was left at this level of power considering how quickly his powers developed. It went so fast that his development went largely unearned.
It felt like the movie spent a lot of time focused on him being a dick at the beginning of the movie and the subsequent search for a cure. Then, when it came time for his training, things went by pretty quickly. Actually, most of his training was spent watching him struggle to get his magic up to speed. However, once he got it, it was like he was immediately great at it. For example, right before he fights against Kaecilius and his henchmen, he could barely get his shield spell to work. During the fight it’s not perfect, but it’s definitely working. Then, about 30 minutes later, he’s saving the world from an inter-dimensional terror. That was just one example of some of the movie’s off pacing.
As a character, I think Doctor Strange differs more from his comic book counterpart than any other character in the MCU. That is primarily because his personality is very different. The Doctor Strange that I remember from the comics is almost overly serious in most situations. That’s not unexpected since he’s usually dealing with reality-threatening villains. Cumberbatch’s version of Strange is funny. Not only is he funny, but he actually prides himself on it. I think Cumberbatch fits this version of the character well and he pulls of the tone. The tone also fits the movie very well, but it was definitely a noticeable departure.
There were also noticeable changes made to the supporting cast. The Ancient One, traditionally an elderly Asian man, was played by Tilda Swinton. They make light of this in the movie but, I’m not really sure why the creative decision was made to cast the character as “an older Celtic woman”. Mordo was also changed a bit in this story. I don’t really mind the idea that he would’ve been more of an ally to Strange at the beginning. The strange part about his change of backstory is that Kaecilius’ arc in the movie is pretty much Mordo’s backstory. Then there was the addition of Christine Palmer aka the Night Nurse. While I wouldn’t begrudge Rachel McAdams a role in any movie, to my knowledge, Palmer has no significant interaction with Doctor Strange in the comics.
Of course, the most delightful change came in the form of Strange’s Cloak of Levitation. In the comics, the cloak does have some form of sentience, but it’s usually assumed that the cloak is somehow controlled by Strange since it almost acts as another set of hands for him. However, in the movie, the cape is shown to have a completely independent mind of its own. It treats Strange almost like a pet would, ala the magic carpet from Aladdin. It was a little difference, but it was worth it if only for the scene where the carpet attacks one of the bad guys to protect Strange.
But, I digress…
Despite some of the strange pacing and character changes, this is an MCU movie. That means that the most important thing is that the movie works as part of the MCU and on its own. This movie does that perfectly well. It’s not breaking my top 5 favorite MCU movies, but it’s still a strong entry. I do like this version of Doctor Strange that’s basically a magical Tony Stark. Maybe he’ll become the leader of the MCU after Robert Downey Jr. inevitably steps down from regular duty. I’m definitely looking forward to watching the internet react to him and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor teaming up in the next movie. And that’s what you really want from a character’s first solo film, to walk away wanting to see more of them.
Doctor Strange (2016)
- The movie creates a very human, captivating and funny version of Strange
- Has some very intense and unique visuals without losing the ability to actually tell what's happening
- It's funny
- The movie feels like it speeds through parts of the characters' development, making certain moments feel unearned
- It may be one of the biggest departures from a character's comic book persona in the MCU
- For an origin story, it feels like the movie ends with characters still only being partially established