Written by David Holland
Like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Ant-Man”, I was skeptical of “Doctor Strange” at first. I’m not sure why, because I had not yet been let down by a MCU movie. I knew of Strange because I read the Infinity War comics, so I knew that he was powerful, certainly the most powerful character to date in the Marvel universe, but I hadn’t read any of his solo comics. I wondered how the “Master of the Mystic Arts” would translate to the screen and whether audiences would be able to follow the – HOLY CRAP SHERLOCK HOLMES IS IN THIS MOVIE!
Back when future “Doctor Strange” star Benedict Cumberbatch was only two years old, Peter Hooten portrayed the Master of the Mystic Arts in a made for TV movie that, judging by the trailer, looks fantastically terrible. It wasn’t long before Hollywood decided a reboot was in order: In 1992 Wes Craven (director of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Scream”) was set to helm “Doctor Strange”. By 2001, David S. Goyer (writer on the “Dark Knight” trilogy, as well as “Man of Steel”) was ready to write and direct the project. In 2008 Guillermo del Toro (director of “Hellboy” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”) was ready to take a crack at directing, with Neil Gaiman attached to write. Yes, that Neil Gaiman.
By 2014 Doctor Strange was finally ready to enter an ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe with Scott Derrickson directing. Derrickson’s previous directing credits were all horror films with the exception of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” but he was such a Doctor Strange fan that he spent his own money to create a concept video as a pitch to get an opportunity to direct. He got his first choice for the title role, Benedict Cumberbatch, a man whose “Sherlock” is perfect, whose American accent is passable, and who needs to share at least one moment on screen with Martin Freeman’s Agent Everett Ross at some point. Just humor me.
How Does it Hold Up:
When I recapped Ant-Man I pointed out that not everyone would like it because of Ant-Man’s not-too-serious tone. Doctor Strange won’t be for everyone because it has some otherworldly special effects – so otherworldly that Mads Mikkelsen, the actor who portrays the villainous Kaecilius, confessed he would sometimes get lost in scenes that had too many moving parts. If you’re not okay with weird, trippy CGI then you’re not going to enjoy this movie. But also, if that’s the case then how did you survive sci-fi movies in the ’80s?
“Doctor Strange” is our introduction to both multiple dimensions and magic in the MCU, and like everything else, the role of magic in this shared universe was the result of extensive discussions by Marvel’s movers and shakers. It was decided that Doctor Strange’s “magic” would come from drawing on the power of other dimensions to alter the world and create shields and weapons. This was intentional so that Strange’s “magic” would be more accessible than throwing lightning bolts and fireballs at each other.
This film is fun, even if you can see the bullet points of Marvel’s “How to Introduce a New Hero” formula in the writing. Start by introducing the Flawed Hero. Then give him an Inciting Incident – in Strange’s case, this is a car accident. Next, lead him to the Strange Teacher who opens him up to the Read World, which he is reluctant to enter at first but is soon drawn into when he shows an aptitude for Supernatural Ability. Throw the hero at an impossible enemy, sprinkle in humor throughout, and bake at 350 degrees for 90 minutes. Where have I heard this story before?
Of course, there’s a reason this is a formula: it works. In particular, you can see why Marvel might use this formula to introduce new heroes during a time of flux. Dependable, recognizable heroes like Iron Man and Captain America have finished their trilogies. They will come back to wrap up the Infinity Saga, but Phase Three is a time to introduce some fresh blood, and Marvel wants to make sure that Superhero Fatigue doesn’t set in when a goateed guy in a cape starts floating around. “Doctor Strange” sets up the rules of his universe so that hopefully “Multiverse of Madness” can build on it in a story that will be more ambitious.
When we meet Stephen Strange, he is an A-hole. No two ways around it. After the car accident that sets him on his hero’s journey he is somehow worse, and this includes being mean to Rachel McAdams, which is actually a crime in twelve states . Upon reaching Kamar-Taj, Strange’s goal is to fix his hands so that he can go back to being a great surgeon. He is curious about the mystic arts, but really wants nothing to do with the big battle against Kaecilius. At last, the Ancient One offers him a choice: take the simple route, which involves channeling mystic energy into his hands and would essentially heal him, or help the entire world by stepping into his role as Sorcerer Supreme. As her physical body is dying, her Astral form lays this movie’s theme all on the line: “Realize that it’s not about you”. This is the turning point, the moment in which Strange elevates himself beyond his original goal of getting better and decides to be better. Only by making this decision would he have the inner strength to subject himself to the time loop with Dormamu. And hey, maybe we could all afford to learn from a movie that involved lots of really skilled actors waving their hands around ridiculously. Perhaps today the Ancient One’s message is one we could all take to heart: Realize that it’s not about you.