Marvel Studios has returned to the silver screen with its veritably long-running Cinematic Universe, once again delivering a full-blast super-heroic adventure guaranteed to excite the kiddies and rake in the earnings. In some of its past film installations the critical reception hasn’t been prominent in the list of priorities seeing as more often than not the movies will sell all the same, however some MCU films have pushed the envelope enough to get professional critics raving. Last May’s “Captain America: Civil War” was one such lucky installment, and now Marvel Studios is set to start a streak with “Doctor Strange”.
In many ways this film, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as surgeon-turned sorcerer Stephen Strange – yes that’s his name, and a dang cool one too – is both a clone of past MCU movies and the first of its kind in the franchise. It’s an origin story like the first “Iron Man”, “Thor”, and “Captain America” films are; it features a large ham egotistic and arrogant protagonist like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark; and it goes “big-shot guy eats humble pie and recovers to become a hero” like Stark and Thor. Fortunately there’s a major new world-building factor that helps it stand out.
That would be the introduction of honest-to-goodness magic in the MCU. Past Marvel superheroes introduced in the films were either driven by techy weapons, funky radiation, super serums, being aliens, and being aliens mistaken by mortals for gods. This time we get our first taste of the MCU’s take on true magic or the mystic arts as they call them here in the movie. Mind you, the introduction to magic’s already been done on Marvel TV with “Agents of SHIELD” season 4, but there’ve been complications between TV and movie productions that I really don’t have time to elaborate on.
Moving on, the “Doctor Strange” movie in its entire sorcerous psychedelic story was helmed by director Scott Derrickson. With a slew of supernatural horror flicks under his belt, Derrickson seemed the perfect choice to tell the movie, even reportedly getting the job by impressing Marvel Studios with an expensive painstakingly crafted storyboard and visual representation of a proposed scene from the film, which was then bought up by the studio and turned into a key sequence in the storyline. I’m willing to be that it was the astral trip scene that ended with Cumberbatch as Strange blurting out “Teach me!”
The film’s producer and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige out and out describes the movie as the gateway to the supernatural side of the movie-verse they’ve made. To sell that point home we’ve got the special effects work put in by Luma Pictures and good old ILM, creating the spectacular spells and impressive magical effects you’ll find, prominent among them the earlier-mentioned psychedelic landscape alterations that would make you think of DiCaprio’s “Inception” being overclocked. The magical circles and mandalas may not be as detailed as found in manga or anime, but they sure do look wicked in live action.
Casting’s also another big masterstroke, especially the mystic people in the Kamar-Taj. Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of Strange’s master the Ancient One was a triumph of sorts over role whitewashing accusations with how she carried herself throughout the narrative, especially since her character was stated in-universe to NOT be an Asian like in the original comics. She even pulls off a respectable effort in androgyny there. Benedict Wong as the librarian and mystic drill sergeant Wong (sorry) was a similarly improved reimagining of the comic book version, only remembered by the readership as the stereotypical Kung-Fu fighting Asian manservant to comics-Strange.
Now as for the story, I’ve mentioned that some elements hew real close to the origin story of other MCU heroes. Rest assured that Cumberbatch brings his own uniqueness to the role of Strange that sets him apart from Downey and Hemsworth. We feel for his pride-breaking and career-ending injury. And he involves us deeply in his experiences of learning the mystic arts in Kamar-Taj, and his reluctance at taking up arms against the threats his order’s been fighting for ages. Ultimately we are empowered with Strange when he steps up to the plate and beats the villain with guile.
Finally we come to discussing the place of “Doctor Strange” in the larger MCU. The requisite extra scenes in the credits do great in segueing the Doc from his personal tale into the lives of other heroes in the setting. The second scene featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Stephen’s magical senior who becomes disillusioned of their crusade during the movie proper and starts his own journey into darkness is an effective setup for a possible sequel to “Doctor Strange” being pushed for by Derrickson. With how impressive the first one has been, I wouldn’t mind a sequel sometime in the future.