Doctor Strange (2016)

Back when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was in its infancy, I was skeptical that it would produce anything good. Iron Man 2 was an abysmal start and Thor certainly didn’t do anything to assuage the feeling that the whole thing was doomed to fail. It was Joss Whedon who finally breathed some life into the MCU with The Avengers. but as the years pass, the warts of that film become clearer and clearer.

All this to say, the idea of an expanded, connected movie universe seems too clunky. Heck, I don’t even like it in comic books where certain story arcs span multiple series and require picking up comic books you’d never read otherwise. It’s a way to wring more cash out of superfans. Sure, I shoveled over a five dollar bill to get the Animal Man issue of the Swamp Thing Rotworld arc, but you can bet that was one of my most resented financial transactions.

Now I’m caught in the grip of the MCU. The only film I haven’t seen is Captain America: The First Avenger because it feels like the most isolated and I really couldn’t care less for the cinematic version of Captain America. And while Guardians of the Galaxy was this bizarre, hilarious breath of fresh air, we had to wade through Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier to get there.

This is a long-winded introduction all leading to the surprising conclusion that Doctor Strange raises the bar for what a superhero movie can do. Visually interesting, cogent action scenes, complicated protagonists, meditations on power structures, different dimensions, and a deep sense of spiritualism. In a genre chocked full of people with advanced tech and superpowers beating the snot out of each other, Doctor Strange is this anomaly, a trippy, psychedelic ride that hints at this rich, magnificent world that makes films like Captain America: Civil War look drab and uninspired.

It’s clear Scott Derrickson sat down with cowriter C. Robert Cargill (who previously collaborated with him on Sinister) and John Spaihts and wrote up a list of films to take inspirations from. The obvious inspiration is Inception with perhaps an even larger ideological influence from The Matrix (albeit, Doctor Strange focuses more on spirituality than philosophy).

Both The Matrix and Inception play with the idea of another reality, but Doctor Strange turns it up to 11 with four–yes, four–different realities. You’ve got regular reality, the mirror reality which looks like the real world except like an M.C. Escher painting with the rules of geometry and physics being bendable to a point that defies perception and logic. Then there’s the astral plane, a sort of shadowy spiritual world outside the person’s body. And to cap things off is the dark plane, a destructive reality that is host to a cosmic horror.

And these are just the backdrops for characters, plot points and action sequences. The film itself is an origin story–wait, I know you’re sick of those, but this isn’t just another origin story. It’s different. Promise. First off, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a much more complicated guy. He’s a brilliant surgeon and knows it to the point that just about everyone except fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) finds him insufferable.

When he breaks his hands in a car wreck, his very identity is shaken to its core. Trying every conceivable option, he finally turns to a hidden organization of magicians led by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who opens his begrudging mind to a world far beyond even his comprehension. As he trains, he befriends magician expert Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and gets in plenty of trouble with librarian Wong (Benedict Wong). Although his progress is painful and bitter, he slowly begins to rebuild himself into something else, just in time to face Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) an old pupil returning for knowledge of the dark plane.

Yes, there are a lot of cliches in there, but together they mostly fall into place. It gives the film a rich world of spiritual exploration, flawed and disillusioned characters, and a fun Eastern vibe that hasn’t made it in Western superhero films before. Granted, it falls into the classic MCU blunder of having a bland villain, but it’s a small blight on an otherwise superb film.

And the whole film packs all of that in a runtime of less than two hours. Most of the Marvel films have become overlong and bloated, but twice as much happens in this film in a fraction of the runtime. You leave the film satisfied with what you got, an economical, compact film with plenty to chew on in the mental and visual department.

It’s the visuals that make the film. It’s two main inspirations–The Matrix and Inception–are visually striking films, but this one goes to another plane of mind-bending antics. These non-euclidean geometric landscapes of kaleidoscope arrays make this ever-shifting and twisting spectacle with some of the most grand and fascinating uses of CGI in a modern film.

It’s also a psychedelic druggie’s dream. Beyond the parade of crazy visual effects, there are these moments of cosmic awe, like a sequence heavily inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, where Strange is flung through the cosmos in a whirlwind of colors. Add to that a sequence in the dark plane with a serious sense of deja vu and visuals out of this world, and Doctor Strange has a handful of moments that feel like you’re tripping on a psychedelic.

And to cap it all off, this film is surprisingly funny. The dialogue is sharp and witty and there are lots of these fantastic, hilarious character moments. Throw in a handful of smart visual gags, and this is at least as funny as Guardians of the Galaxy. As recent superheroes become grimmer, it’s great to have a film that doesn’t take itself so seriously.

Between this film and Guardians of the Galaxy, the MCU is starting to explore the bizarre fun to be had out in the cosmos. While films like Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War go for drab, gritty realism set in our own corner of the universe, these films explore a fun, colorful bizarre world that expands the edges of the galaxy little by little and opens up the exciting possibilities that things could go anywhere from here.

© 2016 James Blake Ewing