A gifted but pathologically douchey neurosurgeon transcends his selfish ways to become a sorcerer superhero in Doctor Strange, the latest comic book movie that ensures that the entitled white heroes of the Earth and beyond will keep inheriting the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (For now.) It’s the 14th outing in the super franchise that Marvel first launched with another arrogant rich jerk turned hero, Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. But Doctor Strange is also, notably, much more mature than its predecessors, and the first blockbuster of the modern superhero era ideally viewed on a magic mushroom trip—all the better to process the stunningly trippy and surprisingly spiritual kaleidoscopic jaunts Strange takes into the astral plane, pulling us along into the rabbit hole.
Broadening the consciousness of the mind, and by extension the conscientiousness of the soul, is one of the decidedly atypical end goals Doctor Strange has in its sights in spite of the minefield of superhero origin story clichés it sweeps across to get there. Stacked with an excellent cast led by Benedict Cumberbatch and the singular Tilda Swinton in a captivating and controversial role, it’s the most dazzling technical achievement of the franchise whose visual delights are worth the ticket price alone: Dynamically shifting M.C. Escher-meets-Inception cityscapes, mirror dimensions that mere mortals can’t see, and the ghostly space between where souls can temporarily depart their mortal coils to chill out in their astral forms—or fistfight with other disembodied spirits, as warrior-magicians are wont to do.
When we first meet Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)—and yes, he does insist on being called “Doctor”—he’s a superstar in his field who has everything a career materialist could ever want. His precision with a scalpel, brilliance in the operating room, and encyclopedic memory have elevated him into the ranks of the kind of doctors who land on magazine covers and live alone in well-appointed penthouse bachelor pads. He’s also a major jerk, the kind that only side-hugs strangers and drives fast cars recklessly around windy curves amped up on the adrenaline, forever seeking the next thrill without regard for anyone else on the road. Which is how Strange ends up speed-crashing down a mountain, losing all dexterity in his million-dollar digits in the process, as the Scott Derrickson-directed Doctor Strange begins.
Derrickson and frequent scripting collaborator C. Robert Cargill, working with Jon Spaihts on the story, do an excellent job presenting Strange’s cutting sense of self-importance and entitlement as a barely-redeemable character flaw masking much deeper self-loathing issues, and Cumberbatch lends a crucial layer of abject misery beneath every biting remark he makes to the helpful souls unlucky enough to cross his path. They include Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), an ER surgeon and colleague—and yes, former lover—who sticks around to help Strange recover from his career-ending accident but has the thoroughly modern sense to cut him loose when his bitterness spills over into emotional abuse.
By the time Strange spends his last dollar on a desperate quest to heal his shattered body he’s broke and alone, having exhausted all the experimental procedures Western medicine can come up with to stitch him back together. He lands on the doorstep of Kamar-Taj, a community of spiritual devotees studying under the tutelage of an androgynous mystic called The Ancient One (Swinton) in the mountains of Nepal, just when a low-key violent uprising is starting to take hold in her world, necessitating the recruitment of new spiritual soldiers.
Doctor Strange’s most ambitious magic trick is its attempt to expand minds without the aid of psychedelics, starting with Strange himself. Fast-forwarding through a litany of Matrix-lite spiritual philosophy gobbledygook, Swinton glides her way through guru mode explaining how “multiverses” exist beyond the limited realm of existence most normal humans can perceive. Poring over his studies at a voracious pace, the hyper-intelligent Strange becomes The Ancient One’s brightest new student, even if he can’t help but question the nature of his own studies—or how exactly she, a Celtic mystic whose real name and age are unknown, has been able to stave off death for so long.
The film crams a lot of new mythology and MCU physics into a short span of time, speeding through Strange’s training with Kamar-Taj’s resident masters, the faithful-to-a-fault Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong), the humorless librarian who safeguards the Ancient One’s most powerful magic books from evildoers, like Mads Mikkelsen’s former student turned extremist Kaecilius. Derrickson & Co. have fun unleashing Strange’s man-child wizard in training as he learns how to conjure magical mandalas with his fingers, teleport across vast distances, and secretly teaches himself spells so dangerous other sorcerers would kill to wield their power.
But old habits die hard. While he eagerly breaks the rules to feed his own thirst for knowledge and healing, Strange balks at the notion of using his newfound gifts to help others, not just himself. The plot accelerates as he finds himself caught in the middle of Kaecilius’s war on The Ancient One and the script finds unsubtle ways to satisfy canon worshippers. Strange helps himself to the Eye of Agamotto, a sacred relic housing great power that also serves as a winking Easter Egg for Marvel fans, and shares the film’s best meet-cute moment with the Cloak of Levitation, a shroud with a mind of its own that completes his signature ensemble. (One can only chalk up the horrid goatee Strange inherits from the comics to the terrible style choices of a man coming back from the brink of insanity.)
Doctor Strange manages the feat of opening up the scope of the MCU beyond the previously delineated confines of its less fantasy-based predecessors, bridging the grounded heroics of the Avengers and the cosmic gallivanting of Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy. But it also rings with some tired familiarity. Stephen Strange is, in so many ways, pretty much another Tony Stark: Wealthy, egotistical, selfish. Cumberbatch’s charisma and the story’s nonstop momentum are perhaps the only things balancing the fact that the character is yet another white male Chosen One destined to excel within an exotic culture not his own, an issue the film doesn’t bother trying to address. (It doesn’t sit quite as glaringly tone deaf, at least, as Marvel’s upcoming small-screen series Iron Fist whose white male protagonist inherits the MCU’s only other Asian-influenced mantle.)
Anyone looking for an answer to Doctor Strange’s streak of Orientalism won’t walk away satisfied, even if the film’s last act takes place in Asia and features a beefed-up arc for Wong’s staunch warrior-librarian beyond playing the straight man to Cumberbatch’s relentlessly wisecracking Strange. Swinton is effortlessly excellent in her role—one that was gender-flipped, in a progressive move for strong female representation in the genre, at least—and her arc, too, focuses instead on more simple universal binaries: Life vs. death, shadows vs. light, good vs. evil, the kind of yin and yang terrain that dials right into the major currents of Strange’s origin tale.
As a contained standalone this is the most inventive Marvel has allowed its movies to get so far, which is a positive indication for new freshness as Phase 3 rolls out. The 3D work is immersive when Derrickson shoots in naturalistic settings on location in Kathmandu, and transportive when he uses it to distort depth and perception in its more fantastical sequences—made even more otherworldly by a memorably electric Michael Giacchino score. Doctor Strange is propelled by one dazzlingly intricate VFX set piece after another. It manages to top each successive sequence leading up to a mind-bending climax in which the neon-lit streets of Hong Kong provide the backdrop as Strange and his wizard pals face off in a battle manipulating the most invisible of intangibles: Time.
The lesson, if there’s one to be found in this first installment of Strange’s story, seems valuable in a year that’s seen such bitter division between cynical self-interest and idealistic harmony. If assholes like Stephen Strange can learn that serving the greater good is the ultimate best use of his talents, we might dare to hope the jerkwads of the real world can get a little bit more enlightened when asked to contemplate life, death, and their place in the universe—even if they have to be tricked into it by buying a ticket to the latest superhero movie with the promise of a psychedelic trip through the Marvel universe.