(Guest Written by John Macy)
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Written by Scott Derrickson, Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill
Runtime: 1 hour 55 minutes
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor,
Rachel McAdfams, Benedict Wong
At this point, watching a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie is like a comfortable pair of
shoes. You know what you’re going to get, and it’s usually going to be an enjoyable
ride. Doctor Strange is the 14th entry into the interconnected saga that Disney and
Marvel are creating. Strange was marketed as a major departure from the “formula”
Marvel uses. It does some impressive things in terms of visual effects. It also shines
some light on a corner of the Marvel Universe that hasn’t been seen on screen yet. But
it’s not the formula breaker they claim it is. But that’s OK. It’s still fun as hell.
Stephen Strange is a dick. A major dick. On the face of it, the must obvious
comparison to Strange in the MCU is Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. And there are a
fair number of similarities there. But for anyone who believes this film is a beat-for beat
retread of 2008’s Iron Man, there is a key difference in the mindset of the character.
Stark is a man who is insulated from the real world by a bubble of wealth, but he is
inherently a good man, even if he covers it with snark. Strange is a true narcissist, who
sees everything through the lens of his own gain. The film makes it clear immediately
that he believes he is superior to everyone he meets.
Strange’s ego is challenged when his reckless driving leads to a car accident that
causes his hands to be destroyed. Since he can no longer work as a surgeon and he
refuses to consider anything else, he begins a single minded quest to heal his hands.
He identifies himself by his work similar to Tony Stark. But where Stark does what he
does because he in incapable of doing anything else, Strange believes anything else is
mystical protectors. Tilda Swinton portrays The Ancient One, the leader of the group at
Kamar-Taj. Swinton brings her usual air of off-putting weirdness to the role. She’s a
great actress who brings weight to all of the dialogue that seems like it was written in a
fortune cookie factory.
The MCU’s trademark humor is on display yet again. Cumberbatch plays Strange with
a dry wit. He seems to be regularly exasperated with how the other characters can’t
keep up with him intellectually, and he never really loses his condescending tone when
dealing with others. The one are where the jokes failed for me was with Strange’s
signature artifact, the Cloak of Levitation. The film gives the Cloak a personality,
which leads to some ridiculously cartoonish sight gags, which are jarring when
compared to the film’s overall dark tone. The effects in this film are outstanding, possibly the best
in an MCU film to date. Derrickson does a great job bringing the trippy nature of the early
1960’s Dr. Strange comics. Some viewers may not like the fact that all of the fight sequences
use magic to augment kung-fu, but for me, this was a better way to go than just having dudes shoot
magic lasers at each other.
Rachel McAdams plays Generic Marvel Female Romantic Lead #17. She does the
best she can with a severely underwritten role that really has no relevance to the story.
You’re supposed to believe that she is the last anchor to Strange’s “normal” life, but she
just comes off like a battered wife, continuing to put up with her partner’s abuse. And
the shame of it is, the script doesn’t give you enough to understand why she puts up
with him. Let’s file this under “Marvel doesn’t give a crap about this.”
The weak link is Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecillius, the central villain. This seems to be one
of the big problems with the MCU films. I submit that in 14 films, the only worthwhile
villains are Loki and the Red Skull. Kaecillius fails because his motivations for his
actions are never given. Kaecillius is referred to as a “broken man,” but you are never
really told why. Marvel Studios has said in the past that they don’t consider the villains
of their films to be a priority. If that’s how they want to make their movies, fine. Their
box office receipts show that most people don’t care. I’m just asking for a basic writing
effort to make these characters threatening.
The Ancient One’s top lieutenant is Mordo, He helps train Strange while the Ancient
One watches. Anyone who reads the comics knows Mordo is Strange’s Joker. In the
source material, Mordo becomes evil out of jealousy, when the Ancient One casts him
aside to teach Strange. Ejiofor plays Mordo as a conflicted man who wants power to
get revenge on some unknown “enemies.” The influence of The Ancient One seems to
curtail this somewhat, but I viewed Mordo as a barely contained attack dog waiting for
an excuse to be let off the chain. He’s not a good man, but he respects the Ancient
One, so he plays along.
Kacillius’s evil plan is to weaken the barrier between our universe and the Dark
Dimension, home of the entity Dormammu. Dormammu wants Earth, and in exchange,
he will give Kaecillius....something, I guess? It’s unclear to me what the endgame is.
In the course of these events, Strange determines that the Ancient One is secretly
stealing energy from the Dark Dimension to extend her lifespan. Mordo is crushed by
this, as he cannot grasp the contradiction of The Ancient One breaking the rules she set
for the other students of Kamar-Taj. The Ancient One dies for her transgression, but
the film misses an opportunity to have all of the students question the rules they were
saddled with. Mordo’s turn to villainy at the end of the film tells me Loki and the Red
Skull will have some company in quality bad guy territory. I’m also hoping that we will
see another incarnation of The Ancient One in future films. My dream would be a
younger character that Strange has to mentor.
I found the climax of the film to be a welcome departure from the Marvel template.
Rather than the standard “beam in the sky with a mindless thug army” ending, Strange
has to use the Eye of Agamotto, a time bending artifact, to reverse damage done to a
city. Strange then uses a nonviolent solution which I won’t spoil, to thwart Dormammu
and save Earth.
Everyone who enjoys these films knows that Doctor Strange will eventually cross paths
with the other MCU heroes. Events dictate that he must appear in Infinity War. To me,
Strange is better off as a loner, dealing with things that others can’t even wrap their
This film is in the top tier of the MCU for me. What I’m still trying to figure out is whether
that is because of the film that we are given, or my excitement for the things I know it’s