The dreary, desaturated visual style that homogenizes Marvel Studios films has only occasionally allowed for idiosyncrasy, most notably by Ant-Man’s whimsical action. But nothing that the studio has produced can compare to the visual splendor of Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange. From its first action sequence, a battle between sorcerers that leaps between continents and dimensions of reality and features a mirror version of London folding in on itself via gigantic gears, the film breaks decisively from the half-hearted attempts at verisimilitude that defines so much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The opening scene, with its colossal scale and endless moving parts, employs the kind of outré visualization usually reserved for Marvel’s climaxes.
Soon after, the action shifts to Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a preternaturally gifted neurosurgeon whose skills are exceeded only by his ego. Shaming his colleagues for their inferior diagnoses, shunning the gratitude of his patients’ families, Strange appears to care only for the proof of his own genius and the luxury it buys him. His fast living catches up to him, though, when he sends his sports car careening off a mountain road and ruins his hands. Desperately seeking a way to repair his nerves, Strange eventually makes his way to Nepal and into the order of sorcerers led by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). The sage quickly tears apart Strange’s scientific rationality by thrusting him into the astral plane, projecting him into a kaleidoscopic multiverse that undulates and glows and warps around him (and even distorts his own body). Strange, to his credit, takes this mind-melting revelation in stride, collecting his breath and saying only “teach me.”
Strange’s arrogant presumption fits well within Marvel’s stock of smarmy superheroes, but Doctor Strange differs from its peers in the ultimate thrust of the protagonist’s arc. The screenplay, by Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, and C. Robert Cargill, slightly tweaks Strange’s origin story, shifting away from the process of him learning to use magic, which he picks up with shocking speed, to the emotional maturity that shapes his actions. It’s a narrative less about the refinement of abilities than the development of the discipline needed to wield those powers. It’s been nearly 15 years since Spider-Man brought the philosophy of “With great power comes great responsibility” to the big screen, and this feels like the first Marvel property since Sam Raimi’s trilogy of Spider-Man films to make that notion the moral core of the story.
The film’s foregrounded morality constantly pulls focus on Strange’s reactions to being thrust into a war waged between the Ancient One and a rogue pupil, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who’s given into the dark impulses of magic and seeks to serve a colossal, planet-devouring immortal called Dormammu. Strange’s aversion to this fight is complicated, a combination of cowardice, self-consciousness, and a genuine doctor’s revulsion of doing harm instead of preventing it. That these elements intersect, with the surgeon perhaps leaning on the Hippocratic oath to mask his fear, only further shades in the character. Strange’s mentor and companion, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), provides a foil that clarifies the protagonist’s mutability, contrasting moral flux and uncertainty with the rigid form of a total believer whose unyielding nature has as many drawbacks as boons. In some ways, Strange is, in his first MCU appearance, given to the kind of self-reflection and doubt that the A-list heroes have only managed to scrape together over multiple films.
Doctor Strange contains problems that seem to be endemic to Marvel’s filmography: The character of Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) largely exists as window dressing, to provide a generic love interest for the story’s hero, and the script relies aggressively on smug, reference-heavy humor to pad out its dialogue. The latter becomes such a bore that the only good joke in the film comes at the expense of all the other ones, when Strange mutters, “People used to think that I was funny,” to the unsmiling mystical librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), who swiftly responds, “Did they work for you?”
These quibbles and nagging discomforts aside, the film rates with Ant-Man and Captain America: The First Avenger as one of Marvel Studios’s few truly invigorating, distinct products. Marvel’s action has rarely been memorable, but it’s thrilling to watch characters fighting through collapsing and reshaping mirror worlds, or of Strange’s spirit fighting a bad guy in astral space while he physically undergoes surgery, his spectral form receiving explosive jolts of energy as his body is defibrillated. The climax is the best sustained sequence to ever appear in a Marvel film, a fight played out against an apocalypse in reverse that literally undoes the glib chaos that tends to end these movies.
Furthermore, the cosmic conflict resolves with a time loop that takes a hero’s willingness to die to absurdist lengths only to draw deep pathos from the idea of never-ending sacrifice. If Marvel’s films have too often treated their comic-book origins as baggage to be overcome, Doctor Strange may be the studio’s first movie to even approach the innovation and leftfield thinking that has made the printed format so superior to its big-budget adaptations.