Doctor Strange: Undergraduate of the Mystic Arts

Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong
Photo courtesy of the same

Despite what my outfit may suggest, I was very worried that Doctor Strange was going to turn out pretty “meh.” The director, Scott Derrickson, has mostly worked in not-quite-B horror movies, such as Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which don’t exactly scream “classic magical superhero movie” to me. In fact, my favorite director, Guillermo del Toro, tried to do a Doctor Strange movie back in 2007 (with my favorite author, Neil Gaiman, writing, which, and not too devolve too much into geekery too soon, sounds amazing, considering how well he wrote the Sorcerer Supreme in Marvel 1602), and that film’s nonexistence haunts me every day. The trailers, too, seemed pretty colorless and dramatic, which is as far from “quintessential Doctor Strange” as one can easily imagine.

For non-fans, Doctor Strange is an adaptation of the much-loved Marvel property of the same name, whose titular character, Stephen Strange M.D., was once an egotistical neurosurgeon, but after a car accident which robbed him of the nerves in his hands, journeyed to Tibet (in the movie, Nepal), seeking alternative medicine. What he got instead was a thorough education in the mystic arts, eventually becoming the Sorcerer Supreme, and thanks to the famous Spider-Man team of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, one of the greatest comic book characters of all time. He’s been a member of the Avengers, the Defenders (something completely different in the comics from the Netflix show); heck, he was one of the main characters of Infinity Gauntlet, the basis for the forthcoming third Avengers movie. As you might guess, he’s near to my heart, so I waited in the theater more than ready to tear this film apart with righteous indignation if the need arose.

Luckily, the movie proved itself quickly. It had probably the quickest “woah, that’s cool” reaction out of me of any Marvel movie (probably thirty seconds), in reaction to an impressive bookcase wherein the books are held by chains in metal hexagons. We find out later that this is the Ancient One’s personal collection, and, boy, does she have a sense of style! Meanwhile, the fan favorite scene from the trailers, where the Ancient One punches Strange’s astral form out of his body, is even better in the movie, followed up by probably five straight minutes of the craziest stuff the visual effects team could think of. Oh, you’ll see other dimensions. You’ll see many-faced aliens. You’ll see recursive anatomy straight out of a Cyriak video. You’ll even see my favorite supervillain of all time (I’ll leave discussion of them for the spoiler section). I have word from a reliable source (shout out to mah boi Aaron!) that many of the psychedelic sights from that scene came straight from the old Steve Ditko comics, which warms my heart.

If nothing else, Doctor Strange is a strikingly beautiful movie. The CGI in it is bright, colorful, and appropriately out-of-place for the products of magic. Props seamlessly transition into effects, as do the actors (at least I hope those endless falls were computer-generated). On top of that, Strange has excellent cinematography, leading its fight scenes to be more comprehensible than we’ve come to expect of contemporary films, and its settings to feel like places you could go to, or build Lego replicas of in your basement. I won’t be doing that, though. I don’t have a basement.

The actors are great across the board. Tilda Swinton’s white femaleness is a lot less distracting than I anticipated, and they don’t make any effort to ignore that she is absolutely a Celtic woman. Benedict Cumberbatch was great, which eased my worries about him merely showing up for a paycheck. He has a lot of dimensions of the doctor to portray in a short period of time, and does a great job transitioning from a snobby neurosurgeon to a multiversal savior. Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is about as intimidating as one would expect from the master villain, although he suffers the common fate of Marvel antagonists, and doesn’t have much screentime, and even less to do. Chiwetel Ejiofor, best known as the Operative from the 2005 film Serenity, was way awesome as Karl Mordo, although I’m still a little sad he’s not Black Panther.

Speaking of things that make me sad, Strange never gets to use any of his timeless catchphrases in the movie. Don’t expect any “By the Vishanti”s, or “By the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak”s. Those beautiful exclamations were only a few of the things sorely missing from the movie, which was only about a hundred minutes and badly needed to be two hours. Once the action scenes start, they don’t stop until the credits roll, although they’re too awesome for you to really notice that the pacing needs work. Additionally, Rachel McAdam’s character, Christine Palmer, has barely anything to do, and seems a lot like some executive ran into the writing room screaming, “THIS MOVIE’S TOO WEIRD, WE NEED A ROMANCE OR ELSE THEY’LL ALL WALK OUT.”

But it’s not too bad. If I had to rank Doctor Strange among the Marvel movies (many of them favorites), I’d say it’s probably the fourth best (the rest of my list is the topic of another article waiting to happen). That’s a lot greater praise than it sounds. I give it six brainmelting fractals out of seven.

Spoilers/General Geekery Section:

Who would’ve thought they’d go straight for Dormammu in the first Doctor Strange movie? Too bad he doesn’t look anything like he does in the comics. Oh, well. Also, why is the Eye of Agamotto the Time Stone instead of the Soul Stone? It acts nothing like it does in the comics, and if it was the Soul Stone, it could easily do most of the same stuff as the source material. I can’t complain too much, though, because they reference the Living Tribunal, and Valtorr, but oddly enough not the Vishanti. The Wand of Watoomb shows up, though, and it’s pretty awesome. Plus, we get a surgery-assisted-by-astral-Strange scene straight out of Doctor Strange: The Oath, by the legendary Brian K. Vaughan. I’m sure there were tons of other references I didn’t catch, but this article is already too long.

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