Doctor Strange

MPAA Rating: PG-13 | Rating: ★★★½
Release year: 2016
Genre: Action, Superhero Director: Scott Derrickson

Doctor Strange has the visual aesthetic of both a kaleidoscope and an M.C. Escher drawing. Spinning colors and geometric shapes, reality-bending images (literally: all of reality, including time, is malleable in the world of this film), and multi-dimensional travel all create for quite the cinematic experience. I watched the film in IMAX and 3D, which enhanced this film’s main strength: its dynamic images. At one point, Doctor Steven Strange (aptly portrayed by an American-accented Benedict Cumberbatch) takes a tumble through the multi-verse, something which owes a lot to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and can best be described by one of my adolescent film-going friends: “It’s like they laced the 3D glasses with LSD.” Yet what struck me most throughout Doctor Strange was how well framed and blocked each sequence was, both in the multi-verse and in later time/reality-bending fight sequences. I knew where each character was, what was happening on-screen made sense (even when it didn’t make sense), and I had the paradoxical response of feeling total awe while being totally comfortable, akin to being strapped in tightly and safely for the craziest of roller coaster rides.

Doctor Strange is the most spiritual of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It wears its spirituality on its sleeve (or its levitating cloak), yet never devolves into feeling hokey. After Strange experiences a debilitating car accident which leaves his master surgeon hands incapacitated, he seeks out any cure he can find. When science and medicine fall short, he ultimately turns to the mystic arts, seeking out the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, doing what she does best: becoming a chameleon within her role while still remaining distinctly Tilda Swinton) and being trained as a sorcerer. At one point, Strange openly dismisses the spiritual worldview, claiming that we are all simply matter and biology, that there is no spirit world. Then the Ancient One pushes him into the multi-verse–an infinite number of realities–and causes what can simply be described as a paradigm shift. Open you mind, indeed.

“It’s not about you.” These words are spoken by the Ancient One to Strange in a moment of respite from all the dimensional travel and mind-bending action. The visuals remaining stunning as their conversation occurs in an astral dimension, time slowed down to a near halt, bolts of lightening emerging from clouds with a languid beauty as snow hovers quietly in the air around. “It’s not about you” somehow hit me harder than nearly any other line from cinema this year. While Strange’s arc from pride to humility strongly mirrors another goatee-sporting MCU character, the overt inclusion of the spiritual side of our humanity makes Doctor Strange a unique exploration of a familiar idea. Pride and arrogance lead to destruction, but it’s not just about the externals of becoming a superhero and saving the world; it’s about the interior transformation, the character formation from within by choosing to let go of ego. I sense that Tony Stark still retains much of his ego, while Strange feels genuinely humbled.

While some moments of humor feel hit or miss, and the film follows a similar narrative arc to the Iron Man films, Doctor Strange manages to transcend many of the MCU formulas in its characterization, its embrace of spirituality, and in its climactic battle sequence. Where previous MCU films featured large cities being decimated, Doctor Strange quite literally reverses this trend through a time-travel element. The ultimate battle between Strange and the baddie, Dormammu, isn’t your basic back-and-forth punchfest. It’s an intellectual showdown, where Strange uses both mystic powers and his wisdom and discernment to outsmart Dormammu though the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. I appreciated the Christ figure elements within this battle and the ethical questions raised by the film (see Steven Greydanus’ excellent evaluation of the film’s moral dilemmas here), without ever feeling like this was a “message” movie or a “Christian” film. The spirituality presented here combines both Eastern and Western philosophy without becoming synergistic or muddled.

I want to revisit Doctor Strange, which is more than I can say for most of the MCU films (Didn’t Civil War come out this year?). While they’re certainly fun (sometimes) and visually gripping (sometimes), the Marvel formulas are beginning to tire for me. Director Scott Derrickson, writer, C. Robert Cargill, and their team of incredible actors (Cumberbatch, Swinton, Chiwetl Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelson, Rachel McAdams–this is a fantastic lineup for any film) have done something almost miraculous: they reminded me to stop worrying and love the MCU again.

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