Doctor Strange is a very frustrating film. It sets itself apart from other Marvel films by being about the embracement of new ideas, the opening and expansion of the mind, and the rejection of all that we’ve known and thought before. It’s the spiritual over the physical, the teachings of Eastern ideals and philosophies as opposed to those of Western culture, and the limitations that time places on all of us. These ideas are present throughout a film filled with spectacular, hallucinatory visuals, inspired action sequences, and a climax that transcends any previous Marvel film and breaks the mold of the standard superhero punch-up.
Unfortunately, there’s simply too much going on in Doctor Strange, too many things that need to happen, and too many concepts to introduce and explain. Everything that goes down in it may have been better if it had all been spread out across two films, but Doctor Strange has to be where Marvel needs him to be for Infinity War, so his journey ends up feeling almost rushed. Almost all of the dialogue is expositional and none of the supporting characters are given a chance to shine, making them unmemorable.
Stephen Strange is a brilliant surgeon with the steadiest hands in the business, but he’s incredibly egotistical and chooses to heal and operate only on his terms, ignoring any operations that seem beneath him and rejecting any that seem impossible. Strange is in this only for himself and the glory that comes with it. A car accident severely injures his hands, and after repeated failures of surgeries, physical therapy, and other healing methods, Strange is forced to travel East to search for a more unorthodox way to heal his hands. It is here that he meets The Ancient One, who awakens his mind and introduces him to the concepts of other dimensions. She teaches him how to draw power from these dimensions to perform magic and cast spells, and join her group of sorcerers who protect the earth from magical and mystical threats.
Benedict Cumberbatch is an incredibly safe casting choice for the role, but only in the sense that he’s obviously perfect for it. Cumberbatch has the exact look of Strange straight out of the comic books, and has the right temperament and attitude and sense of importance. The only thing he can’t seem to figure out is the humor, but that could be more the fault of the writing than the actor. Almost none of the humor in Doctor Strange lands, and the film apparently thinks the running gag of Wong being compared to Adele, Eminem, and Beyonce for only having a first name is the strongest joke they’ve got, when in fact it’s the worst out of all of them.
Kaecilius is our villain, a former student of The Ancient One who draws power from the dark dimension and the evil inter-dimensional being Dormammu. There is no concept of time in the dark dimension, and Kaecilius believes it to be the way to eternal life, so he wishes to bring it to Earth. Kaecilius is played by Mads Mikkelsen, an extremely talented actor, who is given nothing to do or work with. Just about every single one of his lines are exposition about the dark dimension and Dormammu, and so we never actually get to know who Kaecilius is or what his motivations truly are. He’s not much of a character, and Dormammu is even less so, reduced to being a giant CG head that gave me serious Green Lantern flashbacks, and that’s a movie I never want to have to think about.
No character is really given their due. Tilda Swinton (again, an extreme talent) brings her otherworldly demeanor to The Ancient One, but her relationships with every other character seem distant. The mentor / mentee relationship she has with Strange is the standard for the MCU, but the two are never given enough time together, and while we can assume that Strange is grateful to her for her teachings and wisdom that have turned his life around, he never really conveys that to her or to us. Her death scene, where she stretches out her final moments as long possible so she can watch the rain fall, is certainly beautiful, but the emotional impact that it should have just isn’t there.
Chiwetel Ejiofor does the best he can with what he’s given as Mordo, the sorcerer who brings Strange to The Ancient One and helps train him. He is sadly forced to mainly explain things to Strange, turning his character into just another exposition machine. His disillusionment with the sorcerers and The Ancient One is thankfully earned, but his post-credits turn into an antagonist for future sequels feels a bit too early and wasteful. Doctor Strange and Mordo facing off on opposing sides should have a good amount of emotional weight behind it (imagine if Rhodey turned on Iron Man, or if Sam turned on Cap), but this film doesn’t give us much as far as their friendship goes. It feels like it would’ve been a better choice to keep Mordo around, build their relationship in the sequel, and then have him turn, but this film tries as hard as it can to establish as much as possible in only one film.
Rachel McAdams receives the worst of it all, and Marvel’s continuous lack of good female characters rears its ugly head. McAams plays Christine, a nurse who works alongside Stephen Strange and serves as his love interest. Stephen pushes her away during his attempts to fix his hands, but he comes to her twice in his time of need to patch him and his friends up after battles. The two never really reconcile, Christine merely asks where Stephen has been and is hilariously accepting of all of the magic going on around her (such as Stephen appearing before her as a spirit or a dimensional gateway popping up in the supply closet). The romance between them seems completely unnecessary outside of the opening of the film, and in fact, Christine is never seen again after the second act, the film not even bothering to wrap up that plot thread by its end. McAdams deserves better, it’s pretty bad when your character is an even weaker love interest than poor Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster.
All that said, Marvel still manages to get the one important thing right: Stephen Strange himself. When Strange begins his training, he works to understand and use magic as a way to heal his hands. Strange seeks knowledge rather than strength, and when he kills one of Kaecilius’s disciples in his first battle, he’s disgusted by it. Strange is a healer, a literal doctor that took an oath, and he has absolutely no desire to take a human life, something that is very different compared to all other heroes in the MCU thus far. Strange is given a choice after The Ancient One’s death. He can return home, using his new abilities to heal his hands, and resume his life as a surgeon, finding ways to temporarily stop death and bask in the glory. Or he can continue learning and accept that death and failure are a natural part of life. He can continue to expand his mind and find new ways to help people, possibly more people than he ever could as a surgeon.
Strange finds a way to save the world by accepting the natural forces that are death and failure, and without ever having to throw a single punch. The climax of Doctor Strange is all set up to be an epic showdown between Kaecilius’ group and Strange’s, but when the heroes arrive, Hong Kong is already destroyed, the battle having occurred offscreen. It is here that time itself becomes Strange’s strongest ally, the very thing that was his enemy, and the enemy of all who fear death, such as The Ancient One and her student Kaecilius. Strange reverses time, undoing the damage and destruction, becoming a healer on a greater scale than ever before.
He then travels to the dark dimension and confronts Dormammu, trapping the two of them in a time loop. Strange overcomes his fear of failure by allowing himself to fail time and time again, for all eternity. Dormammu continuously kills Strange in violent and painful ways, and each time the loop begins anew. Strange no longer fears death or failure, he in fact welcomes it, possibly thousands of times (we have no idea how long the time loop actually goes on for), as a way to protect, well, everyone. It’s a tremendous character arc, and it’s something that thankfully still feels right and earned despite being in a bloated film.
Doctor Strange was the first film released after a major shift in Marvel Studios. Kevin Feige, godfather and mastermind of the MCU, stopped having to answer to Ike Perlmutter, CEO of Marvel. Perlmutter was someone who was never interested in diversity in their films, and he and his creative committee were notorious for their meddling in the visions directors had for the MCU. Feige went straight to the top, and after a conversation with Disney CEO Bob Iger, began to answer to Disney chairman Alan Horn. Immediately following this, Marvel Studios announced projects such as Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, Captain Marvel, directed by Anna Boden, and Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi. Big changes for Marvel were beginning, diversity was being brought forward, and white men would no longer be the only group represented in front of and behind the camera.
Doctor Strange, with its tremendous amount of exposition and lack of interesting supporting characters, sometimes feels like it falls below average in terms of quality. But other aspects of it, such as Strange’s bargaining with Dormammu and the battles in the Mirror Dimension and Astral Plane, elevate it to a place that no other Marvel film has gone. It was something different, visually and thematically, and it signaled the beginning of a brand new Marvel.