Most of Marvel Studios’s films are the cinematic equivalent of breadcrumbs, which have been dropped into theaters strategically so as to keep one looking for the next sequel or crossover, when the endless televisual exposition will eventually, theoretically yield an event of actual consequence. Occasionally, however, a Marvel film transcends this impersonality and justifies one’s patience. Weird, stylish, and surprisingly lyrical, Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, and Doctor Strange attest to the benefits of the old Hollywood-style studio system that Marvel has resurrected: Under the umbrella of structure and quota is security, which can bequeath qualified freedom.
Doctor Strange is the best film so far in the wave of Marvel productions that began with Iron Man, which initiated an interconnected “universe” that will probably continue to proliferate long after anyone reading this article has expired. Director Scott Derrickson, best known for the derivative yet chilling Sinister, works in a robust old-school style that owes more to American swashbuckler films, Asian action cinema, and the Indiana Jones series than to the frenetic, cut-and-paste aesthetic of contemporary blockbusters such as Captain America: Civil War. The film is informed with atmosphere and majesty, as well as a sense that Derrickson gives a damn about what he’s doing. The Marvel ecosystem has turned him into a classicist.
The film opens in a dark, foreboding temple, and, right away, the difference between Doctor Strange and most other Marvel productions is evident. Derrickson moves the camera deliberately, allowing us to drink in the setting, which has been rendered with painterly shadows and robust shades of earthy color and texture. This film is allowed to be beautiful. A sorcerer, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), and his horde of zealots march into the temple, murder a guardian, and steal pages from a magic book. Like the antagonists of most comic-book films, Kaecilius wants to end the world, but unlike many such villains, he actually has a point, as he’s attempting to incite a kind of mystical-socialist revolution. Kaecilius’s mentor, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), forbids the use of a dark interdimensional power while hypocritically benefitting from the same. Enraged, Kaecilius intends to even the ledger, bringing Earth into a dimensionality ungoverned by time. Kaecilius’s bitterness, especially as defined by the characteristically magnificent Mikkelsen, resonates as the disappointment of a dashed idealist.
Entering the fray is Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who, like most Marvel protagonists, is an egomaniac who must learn humility so as to join the Avengers, putting the needs of an organization above his own—an ideology that’s familiar to the cinema and government of China, a country that’s of massive importance to Marvel’s titanic profitability. Doctor Strange is the crème de la crème of brain surgeons, living the high life in New York City, humiliating his colleagues whenever opportunity strikes, whose hands are crippled in a spectacular car accident set off by his own entitlement and distraction. Seeking help outside the medical box, Strange finds the Ancient One in Nepal, learns to be the great white warrior nearly overnight (natch), and sets about protecting Earth from Kaecilius.
Derrickson knows that he’s making an oft-filmed tale, rife with the racist, colonialist clichés inherent to the adventure genre, and Doctor Strange’s unusual poignancy resides in how he attempts to transcend these problems without ignoring them. He knows the adventure film is ideologically suspect at its core but clearly loves it, which is an unresolved feeling that haunts many humanists who viscerally adore genre films. So Wong (Benedict Wong) is promoted from an Asian sidekick in the comics to a librarian and a master of whatever mystical art it is that the Ancient One practices, often getting the film’s best lines. And the Ancient One is played by a well-regarded, celestially androgynous white woman—an attempt to evade Mr. Miyagi-style stereotypes that somewhat understandably landed Derrickson in hot water anyway.
The filmmaker’s earnestness is infectious though: Tonally, Doctor Strange is a far cry from, say, the first two Iron Man films, which bluffed their way through their own hypocrisy with an affected smugness that has nearly ruined Robert Downey Jr. as an actor. (Against all odds, he was a human being again in Iron Man 3.) And this sensitivity, this attention to mood, tone, and character, invests the special effects with actual awesomeness. Doctor Strange’s psychedelic sequences—with buildings exhilaratingly folding in on themselves, almost like origami, and dimensions of fabulous biochemical irrationality opening up within other dimensions—are gorgeous and imaginatively evoked as well as emotionally stirring. Doctor Strange’s blossoming humility movingly syncs up with Derrickson’s eagerness to refine the adventure wheel, as they’re both trying to simultaneously honor and look beyond themselves. In the case of both director and protagonist, dutifulness and self-inquiry reveal passion.
At times, the blacks of the image are too inky, and the grays lack a bit of snap, but the colors are mostly rich and deeply textured. The silvers are sleek and elegant, and the reds, purples, and blues of the CGI have a weight and tactility that's rare, even in films produced on this vast of a scale. The cityscapes offer a wealth of information, with pristine, elaborately multi-planed backgrounds, and warmer foregrounds that often favor the textures of the actors and their wardrobes, which are also robustly tangible. This tangibility is intensified by the superb English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which informs subtle low notes with impressive, pivotal body, lending objects such as a sentient cape a swooshing personality of their own. High notes are strong and crystal clear (such as the violins of Michael Giacchino's score), and the twisting and crashing of the trippy action scenes are mixed with an immersive, exhilarating, oxymoronically coherent sense of operatic cacophony.
As with the supplements attached to home-video releases of many contemporary blockbuster films, the featurettes included with the Doctor Strange disc are composed mostly of puffery, in which the filmmakers discuss how "extraordinary" everyone was, while the actors repeatedly insist that everything boils down to the characters. Even if these claims are true, they don't tell us much, and the same snippets of interview footage are reused from segment to segment. Occasionally, a choice bit of on-set footage will tease revelations about architecture, props, and fight choreography without offering any further elaboration. Whether one cares for the films or not, Marvel Studios has created a system with a remarkable hold on contemporary pop culture, and it would be gratifying to be provided some real context as to its working methods. Redeeming this package quite a bit is director Scott Derrickson's audio commentary, which discusses his affection for the Doctor Strange comics, his audition process for landing the gig with Marvel, and various choices of adaptation that he made throughout the production process. It's an informative, entertaining, and unpretentious listen, and should be of interest to fledgling filmmakers. Rounding out the package are inconsequential deleted and extended scenes, promotions for the next round of Marvel films, as well as a gag reel and assorted trailers.
Marvel's best film to date is a surprisingly beautiful, eccentric, and generous fable of interpersonal, political, and cosmic communion.