By: Hawk Ripjaw (Two Beers) –
Can you believe The Avengers only came out four years ago? With at least a couple of movies every year since then, Marvel is finally ready to get a little…weird.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a world-renowned surgeon–and, because this is a Marvel film, a total dick. Strange is so confident in himself, he won’t take a case that isn’t on a House-level of, uh… unique, or one that he has any chance of failure. His idea of a romantic date is taking his girlfriend and nurse Christine (Rachel McAdams) to one of his speaking events. He’ll even do a procedure that should require a tool with just his hands. He’s brilliant, and he knows it.
Driving to one such speaking event one night, Strange is glancing down at some MRI results of a potential patient on his phone, which distracts him just long enough to get him into a car crash violent enough to make Dominic Toretto’s pants tight (and yes, there is a PSA at the end of the credits warning against distracted driving), ruining his hands and his career. Strange explores every option he knows to get his hands repaired, to no avail. Upon learning that a former victim of a severe, paralyzing spinal injury is able to run around playing basketball (he’s played by Benjamin Bratt, with no reference to the basketball game in Catwoman) after visiting Nepal, Strange decides to go there and seek whatever mystery cure resides there. As it turns out, The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) has a very different method of healing than Strange is accustomed to, and begins to teach Strange the mystical arts, which is exactly the opposite of what the science-minded Strange is prepared to believe in. But as Strange slowly begins to embrace his own innate skill for sorcery, a former pupil of The Ancient One, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) prepares to open a portal from Earth to the Dark Realm, where Dormammu, an astral being that would make Thanos shit his pants, is ready to chow down.
Marvel is often cited for each of their films following a similar blueprint and even visual style, as part of a unified body of work. While some of that holds true for Doctor Strange, it’s also the first film to attempt some wild changes. Namely, this is trippy as shit. From Strange’s first dimensional jump/visual approximation of what LSD probably feels like, to the heavily-advertised special effect that features the city folding in on itself like the ultimate dick-measuring contest against Inception, the visuals and the action sequences in Doctor Strange are some of the coolest and most creative the franchise has yet featured. Most notably, the climax avoids the popular citywide destruction trope the genre is known for in favor of something significantly more interesting.
With the introduction of magic and otherworldly dimensions (including an insane Mirror Dimension in which the entire world can be twisted and folded with no effect on the real world), director Scott Derrickson brings a fresh new twist on a cinematic universe that so far has mostly avoided mysticism. Now that the door has been opened, there is a wealth of possibilities for the MCU, and it’s exciting to think the level of visual ingenuity here could eventually be incorporated into the larger MCU. And with Bengabench Cromperchance being a generally fresh wrinkle on the Marvel heroes with his knowledge of an entirely new layer of the universe, this suggests all sorts of great possibilities for Strange and the rest of the Avengers. Strange bantering with Stark? Yes please.
It doesn’t get said often, but that generally-useless 3D IMAX format? Doctor Strange fits into it like a magical cape. In fact, having seen it in the format, the movie would feel incomplete otherwise. Those crazy dimension-hopping sequences are positively eye-melting in a third gigantic dimension, and the Mirror Dimension setpiece is even more breathtaking on the IMAX screen. I’m generally the last person to recommend 3D anything, since I can never get those fucking glasses to sit comfortably over my own, but the level of depth and immersion it adds to Doctor Strange specifically is practically a total upgrade to the experience.
As much as Strange manages to break away from the pack in terms of Marvel cinematic elements, there are still times where it fails to buck the trend: namely, the villain. In over a dozen Marvel movies, you could count the memorable or well-developed villains on one hand, and Kaecilius is not quite one of them. While he has more to do than sit around and direct his minions, and his motivations are more interesting than a standard supervillain, the “tell, don’t show” approach to his character significantly dilutes his impact, even as Mads Mikkelsen chews the scenery whenever he can and has great chemistry with Brendamick Clumperclack. It’s almost more frustrating given Kaecilius is already a little sympathetic–he’s one of those antagonists who believes he is doing something noble–and with just a little more time devoted to his backstory, he would have been way more interesting.
Maybe the coolest part about this movie isn’t the special effects, Benbermict Cramperpatch, or the crazy new wrinkle to the world of Marvel. It’s the fact that it’s 2016, and having made movies about almost all of the most well-known heroes, Marvel is going into the weirder territory and made a movie about Stephen fucking Strange, and they made it really damn good. To think that two years ago, we all got hyped about the world-building possibilities when Strange got a mere name-drop in The Winter Soldier, and today the previously-B-list hero is in one of the freshest and most entertaining entries the franchise has yet had. It’s imperfect as a film–aren’t most of them?–but it stands as evidence that Marvel is willing to break the mold and take the universe in some interesting new directions.
Doctor Strange (2016) Drinking Game
Do a Shot: every time Christine gets startled.
Take a Drink: whenever Strange is a dick to someone.
Take a Drink: every time the world starts transforming.
Do a Shot: for every extension of the Doctor Strange/Cape of Levitation bromance.