My Marvel Diary: Doctor Strange

Image: Marvel/Disney

Taking a cursory glance at today’s cinematic landscape it would appear that Marvel, or more accurately Disney, rule the world. Since 2008’s Iron Man the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built itself up into a box-office behemoth with huge cultural influence. I have never quite got the superhero hype, however. A long-time lover of ‘proper’ cinema and arthouse flicks, in recent years I have fought against this tendency to be a ‘film snob’. My Marvel Diary is a challenge to myself to watch all 23 MCU films, perhaps proving my prejudices correct, or perhaps turning me into a lifelong fan of all things superhero.

Release Date: 25th October 2016

MCU Phase: Three

Director: Scott Derrickson

Writers: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill, Jon Spaihts

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong

May contain spoilers.

I want to start by acknowledging something that goes beyond this film and into the wider industry and society. I love Tilda Swinton as an actress, but it feels like casting her as the Ancient One, a character depicted as a Tibetan monk in the comics, was a mistake. The film has been criticised for this decision and it is easy to see why. There is poor Asian representation on the Hollywood screen as it is, without wasting an opportunity such as this to have a person of colour in a prominent role. The filmmakers have defended their decision, pointing out that this is a completely different version of the Ancient One to the comic books, with the gender being changed here too. Some have also suggested this was intended as a more progressive move, given how offensively stereotypical the original character was. I would like to believe that intentions were good from the makers of Doctor Strange, but there was surely a different approach to altering the character that did not involve ‘whitewashing’ it. Given that we had a ‘different version’ of originally Chinese-English character The Mandarin in Iron Man 3, and that all MCU leads so far have been white men, there is clearly something for Marvel and Disney to address at this point. With Black Panther around the corner for me and a new, diverse set of characters announced for Phase Four, I am optimistic about the future. I am not best placed to say much more on the topic, but I felt it would be remiss of me to simply ignore it.

The film itself, I was generally impressed by. It feels like a real departure from the normal Marvel Cinematic Universe we have seen so far, sharing DNA with Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy in this regard. With all three of these films having come quite recently, we are seeing the expansion of the MCU as we know it. We’ve now travelled to different planets and dimensions, invoking the simply enormous scale of the whole thing. It all reaffirms how daunting yet exciting a mix of styles Avengers: Infinity War will be. 

All films so far in the MCU have had something comprehensible in pretty much all the powers they depict. Fanciful and ridiculous though it all is, each hero is tethered to a reality we humans know and understand. Doctor Strange, then, is a brave move in offering proper magic in its plot. There’s nothing science about this fiction; it is pure fantasy and embraces it. The aesthetic here is different from anything we have seen so far, allowing the film to feel like a great standalone adventure, and continuing to offer fresh things at a crucial time for the MCU. I said after Age of Ultron that this was crunch time for Marvel. Everything I’ve seen since has been going in the direction I wanted.

Director Scott Derrickson has a horror background (Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and there are shades of that here. There’s more blood and injury detail than usual, and some proper freaky shit going on. Mads Mikkelsen’s crumbling, very disturbing eye sockets as villain Kaecilius are a good example of the spooky edge running through the film. Like Peyton Reed did with Ant-Man, Derrickson embraces the opportunity to get visually playful here on a scale we have not yet seen. Inception-style folding cities and vast, airborne action abound, offering a feast for the eyes hitherto unexplored in the MCU.

In general, I loved how much Derrickson and co. really go for it with Doctor Strange. One very trippy sequence, in particular, lives up to the film’s title. I do wish they had held back the vast spectacle of the opening battle, though. Great though the sequence is, it has the unintended side-effect of reducing the impact of the eventual action finale. The novelty factor has started to wear off and, without the intricate fight choreography of the later Captain America films, it’s a bit less gripping than it should be. The finale suffers from classic Marvel villain issues as well, threatening the entire Earth too quickly and eventually revealing a CGI super-baddie that is far less interesting than anything else in the film. I did enjoy the wit and invention of the time-travel element here, however.

Doctor Strange is an enjoyable diversion for the MCU in its different visual flair, but it has some strong character work too. I like the shades of grey to both the Ancient One and Kaecilius (albeit in just one scene for him), and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is especially intriguing given the post-credits sting (more on that later). I normally like getting backstory and weight to my MCU characters, lest they be left one-dimensional instead, but here there is an effective subtle approach that we rarely see in these films. We don’t need to know exactly what trauma is in Mordo’s past, just that it exists and that discipline and belief have healed him. When those things are removed he feels betrayed and walks away at the end; this is telling, and marks out a care for a character that could easily have been supporting filler. He is neglected a bit for some of the film, requiring a strong performance to keep him relevant. Luckily, Ejiofor is a fine actor.

Stephen Strange himself I found instantly enjoyable. Part Sherlock Holmes, part Tony Stark, the role was tailor-made for Benedict Cumberbatch. He brings arrogance, humour and a tortured soul to a character offering a constant puzzle of whether his ego or his goodness is greater. His humbling fall from grace is a familiar arc, but I like how long the film spends on Strange and his accident before all the magic malarkey. The pain he suffers is gone into in some detail, helping build a solid foundation for the man who will guide us through this and possibly future films. The grounding in ‘reality’ makes his decision to pursue sorcery and forget healing his hands an interesting one. Sadly, I don’t think they spent enough time on this aspect of the plot, or on Rachel McAdams’ paper-thin Christine, even if I do like the friendship/romance area her relationship with Strange occupies. The final goodbye, like much of the film, ends up not as emotionally charged as I would like. There’s still an awful lot to appreciate in spectacle and technique here, all the same.

The Sting

Two big, exciting ones this time, and two I didn’t see coming either. The first features Thor having a little chat with Doctor Strange. Apparently he and Loki need to come to Earth in search of Odin, and Doctor Strange is going to help them. How this will manifest itself in the future I do not know, but am keen to find out. The second sting features Mordo, as he tracks down the formerly-paralysed man that referred Stephen Strange to the Ancient One. Mordo, apparently more broken by the film’s events than we first realised, essentially steals the guy’s magic before saying that there are ‘too many sorcerers’ in the world. It’s a very dark turn for a previously heroic character, and leaves many questions for future Doctor Strange outings.

Where it Ranks

For all Doctor Strange’s strengths, I found it a harder film to warm to than some of the others in My Marvel Diary. Perhaps it’s because the whole thing is so far removed from our reality, but it’s less instantly likeable and, I predict, rewatchable than the likes of Ant-Man. It is also, however, a clearly well-made and engrossing film.

  1. Captain America: Civil War
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  3. The Avengers
  4. Iron Man 3
  5. Guardians of the Galaxy
  6. Iron Man
  7. Doctor Strange
  8. Captain America: The First Avenger
  9. Ant-Man
  10. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  11. Iron Man 2
  12. Thor
  13. Thor: The Dark World
  14. The Incredible Hulk

Andrew Young