For just a moment, while someone is being killed in grisly fashion in the opening moments of Doctor Strange, one could almost, almost dare to believe that this might be some different breed of Marvel film that plans on running against the myriad conventions Marvel Studios has hammered out for the MCU. For that split second, it seems like at least a reasonable possibility.
… and then we cut to Dr. Stephen Strange, grooving to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star” and cracking jokes. “Ah, there we go,” one thinks. “Now it’s a Marvel movie.”
This isn’t a complaint. Never in the history of comic book cinema have the stories and characters of superhero lore flowed so effortlessly from page to screen as they do in the current Marvel Cinematic Universe. The struggles of DC’s own shared universe via the likes of Batman v. Superman make it plain to see how hard this craftsmanship and tone-shaping can be to replicate. And in the case of Marvel, the one common thread that always seems to bind things together is that lighthearted sense of humor. When the folks at Marvel Studios truly realized, likely via The Avengers in 2012, that these films were comedies just as much as they were action-adventure stories, it crystallized the format in ways both positive and somewhat limiting. The result is that one can never quite take seriously claims that a new film is going to “break the mold” of the MCU, but at the same time it’s hardly something to complain about, when that mold is fundamentally solid and entertaining.
And so, what we’re given is this: Another excellent Marvel movie, and a fitting introduction to the great Doctor Strange, one of the Marvel universe’s most fun but enigmatic characters. The film is a satisfying, largely self-contained story that wisely doesn’t dip too deeply into the surrounding entanglements of the MCU, such as The Avengers, but instead allows the Doctor’s full personality (via the wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch) to blossom.
At its core, the film is a fairly simple story of an arrogant man learning to place others before himself. Stephen Strange is an exceedingly talented man who has developed the poisonous arrogance common to those with exceptional abilities—he wonders aloud why everyone can’t strive to his own level of greatness and can’t be motivated to help anyone if it doesn’t serve his own glorification in some way. After being severely humbled in a traumatic auto wreck, however, Strange starts down a much more mystical path that rearranges his very perception of reality. Such is the burden of becoming a sorcerer.
Every review you read of Doctor Strange will no doubt heap praise upon the mind-bending visuals, to the extent that it hardly needs to be mentioned here—it should go without saying that seeing this film in 3D is more or less mandatory, even to those such as myself who don’t particularly care for the 3D presentation.
It’s also another piece of evidence in favor of the argument that moreso than any other mega-franchise, the directors of Marvel films don’t matter. Scott Derrickson helms Doctor Strange here with lots of genre films to his credit, from The Exorcism of Emily Rose to Sinister and even the abortive 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Armchair Marvel theorists might have taken these credits to mean that Doctor Strange would be somewhat more macabre or cosmic horror-inflected, as a story about a man dabbling into invisible powers at the root of the universe, but the Marvel formula and the Marvel tone has a tendency to supersede any sort of auteur theory elements that a director’s presence might contribute. If Doctor Strange had been directed by say, Joss Whedon or Colin Trevorrow, it’s hard to imagine how it would look any different than it does here, which is to say more Guardians of the Galaxy than H.P. Lovecraft. Just saying “Marvel Studios” tells you more about the tone than the name of the guy in the director’s chair.
Once again, though: That’s not meant as a pejorative. Doctor Strange is crowd-pleasing and exciting—funny when it should be, sober when it has to be and crackling with a magical mystique that adds a veiled layer of depth to the inner workings of the Marvel universe. Even without too many overt references to the rest of the MCU, everything in Doctor Strange makes one wonder how the revelation of the Marvel Multiverse will affect the likes of Iron Man, Captain America and others.
There, we run into Marvel’s next challenge: Bringing Doctor Strange into the wider fold, which I imagine will be easier said than done. We’re talking about a man who becomes a being of almost incalculable power, and for that reason he’s one whose abilities tend to throw the entire balance of power out of whack. There’s a reason why the Doctor Strange of the comics universe tends to sit in the background without interfering very often—like some of the other cosmic tier beings whose powers hit upon “reality manipulation,” he’s on an entirely different pedestal in terms of the effects he can have on the Earth. Once you’ve introduced a character who shows both an ability and willingness to “violate the natural world” by fast-forwarding and rewinding time itself, even the likes of The Hulk tend to pale in comparison. Where say, Iron Man can blow up a city block, Doctor Strange can teleport him to the third moon of Jupiter with a dismissive wave of his disfigured hands.
For that reason, even in the wake of a successful solo movie, it’s hard to be completely bullish about the prospects of Doctor Strange in the wider MCU series. At least the next appearance—likely a dimension-hopping stint alongside Thor and Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok—looks to play more neatly into the good doctor’s strong suits. But as for the role he might play in say, The Avengers: Infinity War? That’s the real mystery that will have Marvel geeks poring over books of lore until 2018.
Director: Scott Derrickson
Writer: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill (screenplay); Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill (story)
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton
Release Date: November 4, 2016
Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident staff writer, and he may or may not have tried waving his hands to open dimensional portals while driving home from the Doctor Strange screening. You can follow him on Twitter.