Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange is the latest installment in the rapidly expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, a collection of interconnected superhero movies that, to many viewers, are starting to feel like indistinguishable products. Doctor Strange sidesteps and invites that complaint in interesting ways. The broad strokes of the story here are par for the course, with simple life lessons, fantastical powers, and potentially world-ending showdowns – but if Doctor Strange is Just Another Marvel Movie, it’s an uncommonly well-crafted one, with a real sense of flair. Marvel has an excellent track record with casting, but the array of thespians on display here is genuinely impressive. Benedict Cumberbatch does career-best work in the titular role, and is backed up by a cavalcade of Oscar winners or nominees, ranging from an excellent Tilda Swinton as a somewhat unconventional mentor figure to a restrained (by Marvel standards) Chiwetel Ejiofor in a complicated supporting role that promises to be fleshed out further in future films. Michael Giacchino’s score is grand and bombastic but has idiosyncratic touches that befit the weirdness of the character and his world.
The real stars here, though, are the direction and script, which work together to elevate this above standard Marvel fare. With cinematographer Ben Davis, director Scott Derrickson crafts Marvel’s most visually striking film. Strange’s trips through the trippy, psychedelia-infused multiverse are spectacular and memorable, but Derrickson also excels in the quieter moments, honing in on small details and nuances to make something that, more than many Marvel films, feels like its own movie with its own identity. This year’s Captain America: Civil War has a stripped-down, functional simplicity that works for what it is, but the quality of the lighting and coloring in Doctor Strange is, by and large, on a different level. In an early scene following a traumatic accident, we first see Cumberbatch’s shattered hands through a subjective POV shot, bringing us into Strange’s wounded psyche with more immediacy and power than Marvel’s often-sanitized aesthetic usually allows for. A later scene has us looking at Strange through the fence of an urban basketball court, suggesting a self-imposed imprisonment. Action sequences are expected from superhero films, but Derrickson infuses each one here with a unique flair so it never becomes repetitive or tiresome. One chase scene, advertised in the trailers, leans heavily on Inception’s now-familiar dream architecture of inverted gravity and twisting cityscapes, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg: another set piece has two ghostly combatants fighting over one’s ailing physical body, while an inventive finale sets heroes and villains against each other while time reverses all around them. For all Derrickson’s direction brings to the proceedings, though, it’s his contributions to the script that really bring Doctor Strange to life.
In the past, I’ve argued that Marvel’s success hinges largely on its commitment to bringing beloved characters to life on the big screen. Iron Man was anchored by Robert Downey Jr.’s instantly iconic performance as Tony Stark, while Chris Evans has imbued Captain America with a gravitas and old-fashioned decency that recall Christopher Reeves’ Superman. By and large, though, these characters have been drawn in broad strokes, with nuance accumulating slowly over time. Many critics of Doctor Strange have compared it unfavorably to Iron Man’s origin story, and it’s true that both (along with Thor and Ant-Man) riff on the simple and familiar storytelling formula of the asshole who learns the error of his ways. This seems intentional on Marvel’s part, with Stark and Strange positioned as similarly goateed figures on both sides of the science/magic divide. (Now there’s a dynamic I’m eager to see play out in future films.) Beyond facial hair, the similarities are so pronounced as to invite comparison: glowing power sources in or around their chests, snarky, sometimes abrasive wit, and a propensity for pop-culture references. Even Strange’s magical spells are, visually, not unlike Stark’s digital heads up displays. All these facile similarities, however, only serve to highlight the deep differences between the two characters. When we meet them, Strange is driven, while Stark is complacent. Before they become superheroes, Strange is working to save lives, while Stark works in a business that destroys them.
As the film barrels through the early work of character establishment (if Doctor Strange has one big problem, it’s that it moves too fast), it quickly sketches a figure who, like the best comic book heroes, is at once larger than life and all too recognizably human. Strange is an impossibly accomplished neurosurgeon, with a perfect record, but he’s also wildly arrogant. His confidence isn’t misplaced, but it’s deeply off-putting nevertheless. The insecurities that underlie Strange’s egotism are laid bare after a traumatic car accident renders his hands too nerve-damaged and unsteady to hold a scalpel. Like so many Americans of his generation, Strange finds his sense of self-worth in his work: he bluntly (perhaps a bit too bluntly, but then again, this is a comic book) voices his materialistic belief that we are insignificant specks in an indifferent universe. He’s quickly proven wrong on that score, but even after a Kubrickian trip through dimensions expands his mind, it takes Strange a while to learn true humility. He learns it by giving up everything, and the film pays special attention to the small moments in which he grows, and the little things he loses in them – a scalpel handed over to a previously derided colleague, a kiss on the cheek instead of the lips. Early on, when Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) tells him that no one could have done better to fix his broken hands, Strange’s response is at once pathetic and hubristic: “I could have done better.” He rejects her love because he refuses to acknowledge his own flaws. By contrast, in the film’s final moments, Strange puts a broken wristwatch, a symbol of Christine’s love, around his scarred and trembling hand. The camera lingers: Stephen has finally accepted his brokenness. But it doesn’t stop there. “It’s not about you,” the Ancient One rebukes Strange at a key point in the film, and the final shots reinforce this thesis, pulling out away from Stephen until he is only one small part of a larger picture.
Derrickson charts the differences between his characters’ ideologies with surprising nuance. Often, these kinds of movies settle for a simple good and evil binary, but here, Strange’s arc charts a careful middle course through a web of different extremes, each with their own pitfalls. As a neurosurgeon, Strange is an arrogant good-for-nothing, but the film is hardly anti-medicine, presenting Christine and Strange’s other colleagues as truly well-meaning people. Strange cannot go back to being a surgeon because for him, to do so would be an act of pride and egotism, another way to reorient his universe around himself. On the other hand, magic is not presented as an inherently better path; many (if not most) of the sorcerers Strange meets have significant flaws of their own. As fellow student Mordo, Chiwetel Ejiofor carries himself with a stoic nobility that’s appealing, but tinged with a troubling pride. He boasts of having conquered his demons, and is quietly resistant when the Ancient One contradicts him: “We never defeat our demons. We merely learn to live above them.” With his insistence on adhering to natural law – “The bill must be paid,” he repeats with Pharisee-like fervor – Mordo is an apt foil to Strange’s perfectionism. Even his use of magic is more mechanical than spiritual in nature; while Strange and the Ancient One cast spells to form energy shields and other weapons, Mordo uses a staff to fight and travels around with enchanted flying boots. The Ancient One herself is far from a perfect mentor figure. She’s unexpectedly complicated, closer to Dumbledore than Gandalf, and the film carefully observes the way her flaws ripple through the lives of her students.
Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is also seeking perfection, at another extreme. While Strange and Mordo insist on self-definition, Kaecilius pontificates blissfully about a utopian future: “the many becoming the few, becoming the one.” Kaecilius’ rhetoric suggests Lewis’ vision of hell in “Perelandra,” as an infernal confusion of persons that the pantheists falsely think of as heaven – a vision that bears startling similarities to Strange’s materialistic insistence that human beings are insignificant specks in an indifferent universe. In this universe, meaning is found by losing oneself in the whole. Yet Kaecilius, for all his blind devotion to the evil Dormammu, is prideful in his own way. “Time,” he rages, “is an insult. Death is an insult.” Strange, in contrast, must learn to accept both. Kaecilius and his “zealots” seek a world beyond time, but because of the evil means they use to attain it, their heaven is more like a hell.
Derrickson studied philosophy at Biola University, which I currently attend, and this education shines through in the film, as does his Christian background. Only with The Avengers: Age of Ultron have I emerged from a Marvel movie feeling like I need time to truly contemplate and understand the thematic and philosophical content of what I just saw. (More on that here.) For all its simple plotting and comic book trappings, Doctor Strange has so much on its mind: it’s full of ruminations on time and eternity and the weight of death, not to mention the tension between materialism and spiritualism. That tension is framed here in terms that recall the modern epistemologists’ debate between rationalism and empiricism. Strange and his medical colleagues are concerned with scientifically healing the body, while the Ancient One and other magicians talk at length about the mind shaping reality. Doctor Strange is also, I suspect, a twofold rebuke of Hegelian philosophy. Where Hegel posits that human reason can achieve a perfect, utopian future, Stephen Strange’s arc is all about drawing limits around what human reason can accomplish. And Hegel’s argument that all conflict is merely superficial, the seemingly clashing expressions of an underlying unity, is quite similar to Kaecilius’ insistence on the inevitability of Earth’s absorption into Dormammu’s Dark Dimension, where the many become the few, and the few the one. Doctor Strange argues for a balance between the pragmatic and the rational, the material and the spiritual. It argues for a middle ground between Western individualism and Eastern loss of self. And as heady as all this may sound, Derrickson grounds it all in the characters’ emotional and relational dynamics. They don’t always mesh perfectly – the loftiness of the themes sometimes clashes with the film’s broader comic book sensibilities – but I’m just grateful it even tries to have both.
To return to Age of Ultron: Derrickson once said, somewhere on the internet, that the best scene in any Marvel movie is the final conversation between Vision and Ultron, where the two artificial beings ruminate on humanity’s doomed, self-defeating nature and the grace present in their failings. This is an assessment I heartily agree with: it’s an incredible moment, quiet but transcendent. Derrickson’s storytelling values and aspirations shine through clearly in Doctor Strange, which draws an explicit, direct line from the themes of Age of Ultron to the climax of its own. Age of Ultron was a Nietzschean comment on accepting the circular, continual conflict that is inherent in humanity. Here, Derrickson takes that subtext and makes it text: the climax of Doctor Strange literally revolves around victory being attained by clever usage of a time loop. Faced with worldwide devastation by the Dark Dimension, the “world beyond time” that Kaecilius so longs for, Strange uses the mystical Time Stone to reverse the villains’ destruction of Hong Kong (a clever bit of commentary on the city-destroying climaxes that we’ve come to expect from Marvel films). Strange then flies into the Dark Dimension and confronts Dormammu – not to fight, but to bargain. He cannot defeat the evil being, but he can sacrifice himself by trapping it in a loop where it is forced to kill him repeatedly. This is a perfect, personal ending for a character whose entire arc has been predicated on humbly accepting brokenness. When we met him, he was driven by a fear of failure and an urge to be perfect. In the end, he can’t win, except by being willing to lose over and over and over again. Christian moviegoers tend to be overzealous in reading self-sacrificial heroes as Christ figures, but Strange’s sacrifice here mirrors Christ in surprisingly specific ways. His death for the world’s sake, decried by the legalistic Mordo as a violation of natural law, takes place in one moment that contains countless moments. Like its titular character, Doctor Strange may not be perfect, but its heart is in the right place.