In what may have been Marvel’s most high-stakes solo film to date, ‘Doctor Strange’ has been brought to the big screen, and they’ve held nothing back. The result is spellbinding.
Like that other great left field outing Guardians of the Galaxy, this film represents not only a roll of the dice but also an introduction to a heretofore unexplored element of the MCU. Where Guardians introduced viewers to the cosmic corner of the shared universe, Doctor Strange shows us the full scope of how magic and sorcery will figure in when Thanos finally comes looking to deck out his Infinity Gauntlet. Yes, we’ve seen magic users in previous Marvel films, but never with much clarification and never on a scale like this.
At the outset, Doctor Stephen Strange is a rock star neurosurgeon who prizes status, wealth and professional success above all else. He’s arrogant and self-serving (he’ll only take cases that he believes will further his career) and he generally lives life looking down his nose at people. All that changes in the wake of a horrific car crash (the most sobering reality check about the dangers of texting while driving you will hopefully ever experience), which pulverises his nimble hands and effectively costs him his livelihood.
Crippled by severe nerve damage, Strange loses not only the use of his hands but his sense of purpose and identity. Desperate and having reached the limitations of western medicine, he hears of the mysterious Kama-Taj, said have impossible healing powers. Using the last of his diminished fortune, he travels to Nepal and meets the Ancient One, whose teachings turn his world (literally) upside down.
Visually spectacular above all else, ‘Doctor Strange’ takes innovations made by films like Inception and cranks them up to full blast. In its opening sequence, the streets along Trafalgar Square are folded up like an Origami pinwheel, slammed sideways and sent into a kaleidoscopic, interlocking swirl. Shields and weapons materialise as fiery pentagrams, and foot-chases sprint up the side of skyscrapers. The scene in which the Ancient One gives a sceptical Strange an unsolicited boot down the rabbit-hole of enlightenment is the cinematic equivalent of drinking the electric Kool-Aid at a Pink Floyd reunion tour. The doors to the Fourth Dimension are kicked wide open, and it looks like a billion tiny hands sprouting out of your fingertips, reaching toward the sparkling pink and green heavens from the furrow of your own giant eyeball.
Having been convinced, Strange commits himself to the intense study of the Mystic Arts, relying on the same dedication to study and practice that made him a world-renowned surgeon. Under the guidance of the Ancient One and her chary disciple Mordo, Strange quickly develops into a talented sorcerer. Observing his training and conversion is one of the more delightful aspects of the film, particularly once he makes the acquaintance of the Kama-Taj’s glowering librarian, Wong. By the time he is forced to make an emergency pit stop back at the hospital where he’d once worked, his transformation is so complete that it’s almost jarring to see him there; to the audience as well as his character, his old life is such a distant memory that it feels like one that might have belonged to somebody else.
There are few nit-picks to be had, but if pressed to reach for one it would be that Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer seems more like an attempt even out the gender balance than a character in her own right. McAdams’ character is lumped in the ‘girlfriend’ mould when ‘friend’ or ‘peer’ would have been more effective, if only to supplant a notion of the necessity of a female love interest. Her role as Strange’s tether to the natural realm is perfectly serviceable, but ultimately there is little need for our hero to have a lady love when the best romantic chemistry in the film is between Doctor Strange and his Cloak of Levitation.
The performances are all top-notch, the cinematography is mind-bending and the plot is pleasantly straightforward, with some nice surprises in the third act. As a film, ‘Doctor Strange’ stands tall and, apart from a throwaway line or two, sets itself apart from the Cinematic Universe into which it slots. Yet it coheres to the overall palette, in tone and in spirit, and recognises its existence within the greater scheme. And of course it provides the high entertainment, light touches and moments of genuine emotion that we’ve come to expect from this franchise, proving beyond a doubt that Marvel has still got the magic touch.
For more on Marvel’s Doctor Strange, listen to Liz and Paul’s Frame by Frame podcast review here.