The most notable thing aboutDoctor Strange isn’t its dizzying visual effects or its kaleidscopic action sequences; it’s how muchtime goes by before themoviereminds you that it’s set in theMarvel Cinematic Universe. Around halfway through its two hour run time, a librarian (Benedict Wong) tells surgeon-turned-sorcerer-in-trainingStephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) that Strange’s fellow students aren’t just budding masters of arcana, butacosmiccomplement to the Avengers in defending the Earth against malevolent outsiders. Its the only time the big team gets name-dropped. It bodes well for the universe’s next crop of heroes:Rather thanfeeding into the ever-expanding, ever more complicated narrative web of the MCU, Strange wins bigbystaying small.
At the films outset, Strange, a hotshot neurosurgeon with a healthy dash of Tony Stark-style arrogance, gets in a serious car crash which renders his hands virtually useless. Pursuing anypossible road to recovery, he tracks down Jonathan Pagborn (Benjamin Bratt), a former paraplegic who advises him to seek out the Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu, Nepal. There, he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton)andfellow studentKarl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and learns of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a fallen pupil whostole pages from a spellbook andbig bad alertwants to merge Earth with a being in the Dark Dimension in order to gain eternal life.
It this all sounds overly complicated, dont worry: Strangeglosses overthe logic of these multiple dimensions, sidingwith action overexposition. Imagine the best spell fights from a Harry Potter movie married with the tessellating dream-architecture of Inception, seasoned with the trippiness ofthe Star Child sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its one of the only installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that demands to be seen in full 3-D. (If you thought the Bifrost Bridge scenes from Thor were impressive, just waituntilthe Ancient One introduces Strange to astral projection.)
Spellbooks Full of Villains
One of the most enduringproblems in the MCU is itslack of compelling antagonists. Not only has overarching villain Thanos been stupendously ineffective at acquiring the Infinity Stones he needs for his gauntlet, but the enemies in too many Marvel movies—Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron-Man 3, even Captain America:Civil War—faded from memory soon after the credits rolled.There’s no such problem with Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, whose eyesbenefitfrom some of the best makeup work the MCU has seen. While hes a compositeof various characters from the comics, Mikkelsen is so domineering, so effortlessly sharp, that he’s indelibly memorable despiteclearly functioning as a one-and-donefoes.
But likethe best films in the Marvel franchise, Strangesucceeds by layeringthe conflict.The Ancient One is much more thana benevolent teacher;Mordo’s arc turns Ejiofor’s characterfrom rival to something more pleasingly existential. Anyone familiar with Strange in the comics knows where this is heading, and its great that something larger is planned for Mordobut well be damned if this movie couldnt have been improved even more simply by swapping his role with Cumberbatch. Having said that, we can’t say it’s not gratifyingto see Cumberbatch, sporting a Vincent Price goatee and oozing witharrogance, getting his ass and brain handed to him by a bald female monk, a black warrior, and an Asian librarian.
But perhaps the best aspect of Doctor Strange is that for all of its talk of parallel dimensionsMirror, Dark, and othersand visual fireworks transporting Stephen through landscapes that would warp even MC Eschers mind, the events of the movieonly affecta narrow community of sorcerers. The Avengers are headline-grabbing heroes whose exploits dominate newscasts; like Ant-Man before him, Doctor Strange’s origin story is one of small-scale discovery, not averting global apocalypse. Even the third act’s climactic battle manages to edge away from the usual MCU face-off formula, in a way that’s mind-bending without completelyoverloading the audience.
Marvel’s Next Phase
The Marvel Cinematic Universe spent Phase One assembling the Avengers, and Phase Two creating a conflict between Iron Man and Captain America (and their loyalists). Phase Three, which began with Civil Warand comprises10 films over the next three years, shoulders the dual burdenof resolving theInfinity Stonestorylinewhileintroducing audiences to dozens of characters who are far less recognizable than Spider-Man. But after seeing how Strange only hints at ties to the main thread, it bodes well for how Ant-Man and the Wasp will continue those heroes’stories, Black Panther will feature in his eponymous standalone movie, and Captain Marvel will finally put a female lead on the map.
The MCU’s gender problems linger in StrangeRachel McAdams talents feel wasted playing Strange’s love interest, and the moviefailsthe Bechdel Test in spectacular fashion. But the dominant fear for theuniverse’sBorg-like expansion is how itwill continue to add more characters to an already crowded stable. Doctor Strange has memorable, complex characters and action sequences, along with a visual style that sets it apart from the previous 13 Marvel films. If its manyteam-up movies start to sag under the weight of gratuitouscrossovers, at least the studio knows it can do origin stories right.