Marvel’s 14th film, Doctor Strange, adds magic to what had previously been a science-based world. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange takes a different angle on the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
1. What is it about?
If you’ve seen the trailer, you pretty much know what it’s about; Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant-but-arrogant surgeon, until his hands are crushed in a car accident. Desperate to recover his health and career, Strange travels to Nepal seeking the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a mystic who is supposed to be able to heal incurable injuries. Instead, the Ancient One teaches him the mystic arts. Strange combats a renegade student of the Ancient One, Keacilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who is determined to open the barrier between dimensions and let Earth be consumed, believing this will bring him power and eternal life.
2. Will I like it?
It’s a worthy entry in the Marvel franchise, a great mix of drama, humor, action, and eye-popping visuals, all of it in service to some great characters and a solid story. Cumberbatch is convincing as a completely selfish jerk who becomes a hero, Tilda Swinton convinces us that she is a couple of hundred years old and a master of both the mystic and martial arts, and Benedict Wong is hilarious as Wong, the Ancient One’s new librarian. Rachel McAdams, despite having not enough screen time, provides a lot of the backstory and serves as a great foil for the self-important Strange. She also has a great exciting/funny action scene in the hospital. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo makes an intense and interesting friend/rival for Strange, and his story is just getting started.
3. Will my kids like it?
I think they’ll love it, at least the ones that are old enough. Young kids may like the wild effects but may not understand the story, and there are a few intense scenes. Kids who don’t understand get bored, and then they spend the whole movie kicking the back of my wife’s seat, and nobody wants that. They’re sure to get a big laugh out of the Cloak of Levitation, the most entertaining piece of fabric since Aladdin’s flying carpet.
4. When is a good time for a bathroom break?
On the way in. There isn’t a long enough scene where “nothing happens” (for example, the often obligatory pop song-fueled training montage). This isn’t one of those movies, and the plot moves along at a steady pace, so my advice is to skip the Super Big soda this time.
5. Is the rating appropriate?
It’s PG-13 for “sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence,” and that really undersells it. The first scene in the film is a beheading, though it’s only shown indirectly through shadows on the wall. That leads into an epic kung-fu battle in a landscape straight out of Escher. Strange’s car accident is horrifying, especially the slow-motion shot of his hands being crunched against the dashboard, but the really awful part is the surgery and physical therapy that follows. There’s also a scene of somebody falling to their death from a great height, including the actual impact on the pavement. It’s a little darker than, say, Ant-Man. There’s no real language or sexual content to worry about, it’s just a really intense, occasionally funny, usually action-packed movie.
6. How does Dr. Strange fit into the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Sideways. That is, the events of previous movies are mentioned obliquely, in passing, to establish time and place, but this is very much a self-contained story, not a slice of a larger epic. They don’t spend a lot of time moving pieces around to set up later movies, except for one fairly significant revelation toward the end that directly ties Doctor Strange into the rest of the Marvel Universe.
There are some obscure easter eggs for fans of the comics; Wong wields the Wand of Watoomb, there are passing references to obscure characters like Brother Voodoo, the Avengers Tower makes an appearance, and there’s the mandatory Stan Lee cameo. There’s also a reference to a “35-year-old Marine with a spine injury due to an experimental exoskeleton.” If you want to out-nerd your friends, when one of them says that’s a reference to Rhodey in Civil War, you get to shoot back that Rhodey is Air Force, not Marines, and over 40; the character in question is one of the poor slobs who was mangled while testing Justin Hammer’s knock-off armor in Iron Man 2. (Don’t say I never gave you anything.)
7. Wasn’t there some controversy over minority representation?
There was, and there is. In the comics, the Ancient One was an elderly Asian man, which is really a tired stereotype going all the way back to Lost Horizon, from which Ditko cribbed more than a little of Strange’s backstory. In what appears to be a possibly well-intentioned but ill-considered choice, director Scott Derrickson decided that “the Ancient One” is a title that passes from one mystic to another, and at the moment it belongs to a “Celtic” woman. In trading one kind of diversity for another, he laid himself open to accusations of whitewashing while also inviting the misogynists to have a field day; it may have seemed the least objectionable option in a no-win situation. Regardless of how we ended up with Tilda Swinton, she more than delivers what she was cast to do. Even if there are legitimate objections to a white woman playing a role intended for an Asian man, the character she plays is compelling and believable and it works within the context of this film.
On the other hand, Benedict Wong is going to make a lot of people happy; his Wong is hugely entertaining, and a far cry from the emasculated and subservient manservant of the comics.
8. What about the bad guys?
Mads Mikkelsen plays Kaecilius as a sort of religious zealot; he doesn’t see himself as a villain but as a messiah. He’s going to deliver the Earth into the Dark Dimension, and once we’re absorbed by it, we’ll all live on forever as part of the mindless tapestry of that universe. His willingness to do whatever it takes to bring about this apocalyptic convergence is pretty scary, and might even be a little bit political in these turbulent times, albeit allegorically. As Tilda Swinton remarked at the recent press event, “fear and ego are things to be lived beyond.”
9. Do I need to stay to the end of the credits?
Yup, you sure do. There are two of them, and you’ll want to see both. One speaks to Dr. Strange’s place in the larger Marvel world, and the other addresses future events within the Doctor Strange franchise.
10. Is the 3D worth it?
Imax might be. On a regular screen, the visuals are so incredible that at times you forget that you’re seeing them in 3D. A lot of the film is fairly flat and conventional in staging, apart from the fact that the buildings are flipping sideways and everybody’s throwing mandalas of light at each other. I don’t remember a single scene that demanded 3D the way the bathtub scene in Ant-Man did.