When Doctor Strange was introduced to the Marvel Universe back in 1963, the character opened up a whole new realm of mystical, magical possibilities, and so he did in 2016 as well, shaking up the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a trippy origin story that mostly eschews brawn for brains. And with its time and space-bending narrative, “Doctor Strange” is truly the—uh, well, strangest of the modern Marvel movies.
The film opens on Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), an arrogant neurosurgeon whose hands and world are shattered after a devastating car accident. Seeking a way to heal himself and get back in the game, he exhausts everything modern medicine has to offer and eventually finds his way to Kathmandu, where he enrolls in a kind of mystical university called Kamar-Taj. Strange thinks it’ll be his ticket back into the operating room and his former lifestyle, but he soon learns that he’s a small but important part of a much larger world.
His guide is The Ancient One, a centuries-old Celtic sorcerer played by Tilda Swinton. The character diverges from the original comics, and caused a stir among fans and the Asian community when Swinton was announced as part of the cast. As director Scott Derrickson explains with some contriteness on his Blu-ray disc audio commentary track, he worried that casting an elderly Asian male to match the Marvel Comics origin story would look too stereotypical, like a “Fu Manchu” character. He then goes to to say that casting a female Asian in the role might have looked like the notorious “Dragon Lady” stereotype. So instead he took the role in another direction—acknowledging that he effectively “whitewashed” the character. For the casual viewer with no knowledge of the character’s history, there’s seemingly no issue, nothing wrong. But 5.6 percent of our population is made up of Asian-Americans, and they see precious little of themselves onscreen. The whitewashing of The Ancient One is a missed opportunity for diversity, and frankly Quentin Tarantino pulled off the wise old Asian master brilliantly by casting Gordon Liu in “Kill Bill, Vol. 2.” I had much respect for Pai Mei in that film, and The Ancient One could have been handled similarly here.
Nevertheless, Swinton gives an engaging performance; I liked her in the role very much. It’s obvious she’s hiding something, and we don’t learn until later what it is and the implications it has for Doctor Strange, or even the Earth itself. It’s one of her former pupils, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who reveals the dark truth, something that Strange himself understands, but by that time, he’s learned the same lesson that Spider-Man did about great power and great responsibility.
Throughout the film, there are detours into fantastical realms of consciousness and alternate reality that are depicted onscreen with Oscar-nominated visual effects that would make “Inception’s” head and room spin with envy. New York and London don’t just fold in on themselves in what’s called the “mirror realm,” they twist, turn, and fractalize into fantastic patterns and shapes. When Stephen Strange is first introduced to sorcery by The Ancient One, he’s thrown into a balls-tripping sequence that draws in equal measure from Marvel artist Steve Ditko’s classic design and director Scott Derrickson’s horror-film roots. It’s no wonder “Doctor Strange” the comic book became a favorite of the “heads” in the late 1960s.
About midway through the film, the story becomes less of a journey for Stephen Strange and more of a traditional fight-the-bad-guys movie, albeit with magic and martial arts, instead of guns and barroom brawl fights. (I didn’t see a single gun onscreen, which was kind of refreshing.) Throughout it all, Stephen Strange remains “Doctor Strange,” even making a point to clarify his title on more than one occasion. A phrase oft-attributed to the Hippocratic oath, “do no harm,” came to mind as I watched Doctor Strange struggle with the fact that he had to kill another man in order to save himself.
Later, it’s Strange’s magical partner Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who accuses the good doctor of bending another rule, that of nature itself, to win a battle with a seemingly unstoppable foe. It’s a plot point that sets up future conflict, as fans of the comic books know Mordo to be one of Strange’s archenemies. Another key role goes to Benedict Wong as another Master of the Mystic Arts; he’s been upgraded from his role in the comics, where he played the role of manservant to Doctor Strange. Rachel McAdams has a small but effective part as Strange’s hospital colleague and former lover.
The final shot (not counting Marvel’s obligatory mid- and post-credits teaser sequence) is beautifully set, as Doctor Strange stands alone, silhouetted against the iconic glass window on the top floor of the Sanctum Sanctorum. It befits the tone of the film, which offers some modicum of reflection amidst the mystical, psychedelic chaos. (See it straight. Or don’t. But don’t blame me for your bad trips if you choose the latter!)
“Doctor Strange” on Blu-ray
The Blu-ray of “Doctor Strange” naturally looks great on screen, but I also want to give the sound designers a big shout-out. During the sequence when The Ancient One introduces Stephen Strange to the multiverse, all kinds of voices and crazy sounds emanated from my surround speakers and I checked my tea to make sure it wasn’t spiked.
The extra features on the disc are plentiful, including making-of featurettes, a peek at upcoming Marvel films for diehard fans, and a short conversation with composer Michael Giacchino, including footage of the orchestra recording the film’s soundtrack music. Giacchino likes to work with a full orchestra at once, which I think makes for a more cohesive soundtrack.