September 24, 2020

Doctor Strange Review

In 2014 I was sitting in a theater with a couple of friends watching an early screening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier when Agent Sitwell began spouting off names who could be targeted by Hydra. When he said Stephen Strange I literally jumped out of my seat in joy. Doctor Strange existed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that meant we’ll probably see a movie some day. Two years later it’s here, and it’s the best origin Marvel has done.

The reason for that is the complexity of faithfully adapting Doctor Strange’s origin to the big screen. Cap, Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor? Those are easy. Doctor Strange is a minefield that Marvel deftly maneuvered to bring the Sorcerer Supreme to the big screen. Aside from changing the gender of the Ancient One (which was a damned if you do, damned if you don’t character) and Mordo’s race, it’s pretty much the comic book origin complete with the psychedelic Steve Ditko visuals realized in live action.

There is a quick little reference to the original old-man version of the Ancient One before we’re introduced to the MCU version, who is a Celtic woman. So the movie does acknowledge where it came from in that regard. Many bloggers who don’t read comic books blasted Marvel for including Strange’s “manservant” Wong in the movie, but these people (since they don’t read comics, only Wikipedia) don’t know that in recent years Wong has become someone who can kick ass and hold his own right alongside Strange. That’s the version of the character who’s in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Marvel once said they were done with origin stories, which is why they’re not re-hashing Spider-Man’s origin for the hundredth time, but Doctor Strange is an exception. This is a character who is so unlike the other superheroes in the MCU that you have to do his origin to both show where he came from as well as introduce people to the mystical side of the Marvel universe. And the movie absolutely succeeds at that.

Cumberbatch was born to play Strange. After seeing his Sherlock, there was no one else on this planet who could pull off the arrogant neurosurgeon who is changed after a brutal car accident (caused by distracted driving) and becomes Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme. He looks like Stephen Strange, and if you’ve seen Sherlock he’s basically played the character before. It’s the single most perfect bit of casting Marvel has ever done, and that’s saying something with how well they’ve cast all of the other major characters in the MCU.

Doctor Strange has always been one of my favorite Marvel characters and I’ve always followed the comics, however limited they’ve been. While Strange has been part of teams such as the Defenders, the Illuminati and most recently the New Avengers, his solo books aren’t quite as numerous as the other MCU heroes. But there is a lot of material for the movie to pull from, and the 1960’s Steve Ditko style is absolutely recreated in the movie.

As a Doctor Strange fan I found myself with a huge smile on my face for most of the runtime. Strange’s training is great as you see the arrogant doctor slowly transforming to the Sorcerer Supreme from the comic. The movie’s an origin, so even in the final shot of the film his costume isn’t 100% complete as it was in the comics. But then there’s the hilarious mid-credits scene and the final missing piece of the costume is there. You’ll know when you see it, and it’s one small thing that really makes the Strange costume the most comic accurate in the MCU. It’s even something that none of the promotional artwork of him featured, so I’m not talking about the Eye of Agamotto…

There have been some complaints that the villain is another wasted one in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Were these people not paying attention at all during the movie? Kaecilius and his Zealots are nothing more than expendable stooges working for the real villain. I won’t spoil it here, but Doctor Strange fans can kind of guess who it is (and it’s not Mordo, think bigger). The showdown between Strange and the real villain is a mind-blowing tribute to Steve Ditko’s visuals, and the sort of thing you never thought you’d see on the big screen in the years of “grounded in reality” superhero adaptations. This villain is not killed off, which means he still exists in the MCU to be a threat to Strange for years to come. Just as it should be.

Doctor Strange is such a weird comic book that I was worried they would hold back when bringing it to live action. We don’t get any of his famous catch phrases here, but as he hasn’t had time to learn of those things it makes sense. The Vishanti aren’t named either. But the trippy inter-dimensional travel that Steve Ditko so memorably created in the 60s is absolutely brought into live action. There’s enough of the weird here to make it feel like a Doctor Strange adventure, while laying a foundation to go very strange in a sequel and future appearances.

I think Winter Soldier remains the best of the MCU movies, but as a solo outing and an origin, Doctor Strange is a close second to that one. It’s a movie that is made to be seen in 3D, and one of the MCU films I will be seeing multiple times in theaters. It fills in a missing gap of the MCU. We have the superheroes, the cosmic, and now we have the mystic. The Marvel Cinematic Universe now feels complete with the addition of Doctor Strange.