Directed by Scott Derrickson
Things I knew about the Marvel character Doctor Strange before seeing the film Doctor Strange. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. Cero. Nolla. Null. Zero is the total amount of things I knew about the Marvel character Doctor Strange. I recognize the iconography, the cape and the wee little beard, from when I was a young kid looking for Hulk comics. But I was never curious, never intrigued enough to pick one up. Hey, there were Hulk shenanigans to read. I don't remember Doctor Strange making any appearances in my Hulk comics and I don't remember any of my friends being fans. And all of this boils down to the one fact that I have meandered around like a tourist in a city full of one way streets - I'm not a fan. We're not talking an Ant-Man level of antagonism, I wasn't openly hostile to the notion of a Doctor Strange existing. I was more apathetic. I possibly could have cared less about the existence of Doctor Strange as a character in some comic books I actively avoided when I was younger. It's possible there was a little wiggle room for a tiny bit more indifference. Possible, but unlikely. So, yeah, not a fan.
What that means is that while writing this thing about the film Doctor Strange I don't care about changes to origin stories, changes to motivations, changes to characters and I'm unlikely to get upset about any said changes. I don't know about these characters, I don't know about their history, rich as it may be, because I'm not going to bother to read fifty-three years of comic books to prepare for one two hour film.
And now that we have that preamble out of the way…
Doctor Strange is a singular experience. Hallucinatory and yet somehow grounded, serious and at times quite funny, it is a film of paradoxes. It shouldn't work as well as it does. That it does, that it works as a comic book movie and as a mainstream popcorn entertainment and as an exploration into the imagination of the film makers, is a testament to the work of not only the director but the entire cast and crew. The film makers have created a fun and original vision and the cast completely sells it.
It is a movie that explores the boundaries of reality while at the same time exploring the boundaries of technology. With realities piling on top of each other, folding in on each other, with cityscapes and rooms stretching and folding, with portals and holes being created out of nothing Doctor Strange is an amazing piece of visual story telling. It's a movie with doorways that open to deserts, to rain forests, to seasides, all from the same room. A movie that explores the macro and the micro, that explores the mind and the universe and the multiverses beyond that. To see that the only limitation on the film makers is their own imagination, to see what can be created with software, to see the worlds that can be created by combining some ones and zeros, to be able to sit in a theatre and have these worlds wash across the audiences' eyes and to take root in our collective imaginations, well, this is great time to be a lover of great stories and film.
The folks that are in charge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have done a damn near perfect job preparing their audience for the visuals of Doctor Strange. Without its precursors, it's doubtful if a mainstream audience would have been ready to accept the surrealism of Doctor Strange and taken it in without grumbling. Without the hunks of rock floating in space inhabited by strange alien creatures, without the Bifrost Bridge and its guardian, without all of its comic book dreamlike pieces in place, Thor would not have prepared the audience for the more fantastic bits of the Marvel Universe to come. Without placing those elements in Thor, without explanation or comment, the non-comic book reading audience at large may never have been prepared for the giant head in space in Guardians of the Galaxy, let alone a talking tree and a snarky raccoon. And by letting audiences explore these images and concepts and ideas and things that seem to have been ripped from the cerebral cortexes of Dali and Lewis Carroll in these earlier films, the film makers have an audience that is ready and willing for the surrealism, and unreality, of Doctor Strange.
Doctor Strange is a film where fight scenes take place in an astral setting, where city streets and buildings fold up and change shape, where characters run along walls and ceilings, where reality takes new and wondrous shapes. Think of the Paris scene in Inception. Now, picture that stretched out, with battles and falling and buildings not only moving but splitting, becoming something different, something never seen before in film. Doctor Strange takes the language of film and throws it into a blender and creates something unique and original. The gang that created this film have taken the idea of the visual poem and created a tent-pole blockbuster out of it.
After the last X-Men film and Suicide Squad I was done with watching bored actors wave their hands in front of a green screen. Never, ever again did I want to see an Oscar nominated actor wave their hands aimlessly while the software did all of the work. And going into Doctor Strange that was my single concern - watching this amazing cast flap their arms and hands and pretend to be moving stuff and things. But something happened during Doctor Strange - the actors weren't just waving their arms like drunken ballet school dropouts. Each movement meant something, the way they put their hands together, the way they held their bodies and moved their arms, each action created something new. I completely bought that they were creating these weapons, shields, portals. That they were manipulating reality, that they were folding different realities together. It's hard to explain, how bored I am of the cliche and how excited I am by the way it used in this movie. To take the cliches and parody them, that is one thing. Doctor Strange is working on a whole other level, where they take the cliches and construct something wonderful.
The cast of Doctor Strange all bring their A games to the picture. In much the same way that Paul Rudd's Scott Lang was our audience surrogate into the world of Ant-Man, Benedict Cumberbatch's Dr. Steven Strange is the audience surrogate into the world of Doctor Strange. I believe that Rachel McAdams is incapable of a bad performance. Her naturalism and charm and understated humour are a welcome addition the the Marvel Universe. Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor are both fantastic, but that's like pointing out that Everest is a tall mountain. Of course they are. They bring a lightness and a seriousness in a way that is rarely seen. They balance each other, complimenting each other's performances. Without one, the other's performance would have been less. And I was especially happy to see Benedict Wong in this movie. He is one of my personal favourite actors, his presence, his gravitas, his dry humour are always appreciated. And that brings us to Mads. Hannibal was one of my favourite things of, well, ever. That it was a television show, on a major American network made its three seasons seem like kind of fever dream. Seeing Mads Mikkelsen in a giant blockbuster tent-pole franchise movie is kind of surreal in itself. That this his first of two this season makes it seem like something I would dream of while in a coma.
If you're still reading let me sum this up - you need to see Doctor Strange. It works as a part of a larger franchise, and it works as a stand alone film. If you enjoy watching movies, you need to see this. And you need to see it on a giant screen. And you need to see it in 3-D. Trust me on this, we've been through too much together for me to start steering you wrong now.