The most notable thing about Doctor Strange isn’t its dizzying visual effects or its kaleidscopic action sequences; it’s how much time goes by before the movie reminds you that it’s set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Around halfway through its two hour run time, a librarian (Benedict Wong) tells surgeon-turned-sorcerer-in-training Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) that Strange’s fellow students aren’t just budding masters of arcana, but a cosmic complement to the Avengers in defending the Earth against malevolent outsiders. It’s the only time the big team gets name-dropped. It bodes well for the universe’s next crop of heroes: Rather than feeding into the ever-expanding, ever more complicated narrative web of the MCU, Strange wins big by staying small.
At the film’s outset, Strange, a hotshot neurosurgeon with a healthy dash of Tony Stark-style arrogance, gets in a serious car crash which renders his hands virtually useless. Pursuing any possible road to recovery, he tracks down Jonathan Pagborn (Benjamin Bratt), a former paraplegic who advises him to seek out the Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu, Nepal. There, he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and fellow student Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and learns of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a fallen pupil who stole pages from a spellbook and—big bad alert—wants to merge Earth with a being in the Dark Dimension in order to gain eternal life.
It this all sounds overly complicated, don’t worry: Strange glosses over the logic of these multiple dimensions, siding with action over exposition. Imagine the best spell fights from a Harry Potter movie married with the tessellating dream-architecture of Inception, seasoned with the trippiness of the Star Child sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s one of the only installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that demands to be seen in full 3-D. (If you thought the Bifrost Bridge scenes from Thor were impressive, just wait until the Ancient One introduces Strange to astral projection.)
Spellbooks Full of Villains
One of the most enduring problems in the MCU is its lack of compelling antagonists. Not only has overarching villain Thanos been stupendously ineffective at acquiring the Infinity Stones he needs for his gauntlet, but the enemies in too many Marvel movies—Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron-Man 3, even Captain America: Civil War—faded from memory soon after the credits rolled. There’s no such problem with Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, whose eyes benefit from some of the best makeup work the MCU has seen. While he’s a composite of various characters from the comics, Mikkelsen is so domineering, so effortlessly sharp, that he’s indelibly memorable despite clearly functioning as a one-and-done foes.
But like the best films in the Marvel franchise, Strange succeeds by layering the conflict. The Ancient One is much more than a benevolent teacher; Mordo’s arc turns Ejiofor’s character from rival to something more pleasingly existential. Anyone familiar with Strange in the comics knows where this is heading, and it’s great that something larger is planned for Mordo—but we’ll be damned if this movie couldn’t have been improved even more simply by swapping his role with Cumberbatch. Having said that, we can’t say it’s not gratifying to see Cumberbatch, sporting a Vincent Price goatee and oozing with arrogance, getting his ass and brain handed to him by a bald female monk, a black warrior, and an Asian librarian.
But perhaps the best aspect of Doctor Strange is that for all of its talk of parallel dimensions—Mirror, Dark, and others—and visual fireworks transporting Stephen through landscapes that would warp even MC Escher’s mind, the events of the movie only affect a narrow community of sorcerers. The Avengers are headline-grabbing heroes whose exploits dominate newscasts; like Ant-Man before him, Doctor Strange’s origin story is one of small-scale discovery, not averting global apocalypse. Even the third act’s climactic battle manages to edge away from the usual MCU face-off formula, in a way that’s mind-bending without completely overloading the audience.
Marvel’s Next Phase
The Marvel Cinematic Universe spent Phase One assembling the Avengers, and Phase Two creating a conflict between Iron Man and Captain America (and their loyalists). Phase Three, which began with Civil War and comprises 10 films over the next three years, shoulders the dual burden of resolving the Infinity Stone storyline while introducing audiences to dozens of characters who are far less recognizable than Spider-Man. But after seeing how Strange only hints at ties to the main thread, it bodes well for how Ant-Man and the Wasp will continue those heroes’ stories, Black Panther will feature in his eponymous standalone movie, and Captain Marvel will finally put a female lead on the map.
The MCU’s gender problems linger in Strange—Rachel McAdams’ talents feel wasted playing Strange’s love interest, and the movie fails the Bechdel Test in spectacular fashion. But the dominant fear for the universe’s Borg-like expansion is how it will continue to add more characters to an already crowded stable. Doctor Strange has memorable, complex characters and action sequences, along with a visual style that sets it apart from the previous 13 Marvel films. If its many team-up movies start to sag under the weight of gratuitous crossovers, at least the studio knows it can do origin stories right.