For a 14th chapter in a movie franchise, Doctor Strange achieves a surprising number of firsts for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but also highlights its worst underlying problem.
Let’s start with the good stuff.
Doctor Strange introduces ‘magic’ to this superhero-filled reality. You see, magic hasn’t been touched upon yet in the MCU. Asgard doesn’t count, and neither does the glint in Chris Evans’ steely blue eyes. AMIRITE.
The film also introduces the multiverse. Many comic book fans of a certain age may do a shudder at this statement, as the comic book multiverse offers a ‘Sliding Doors’ style view of multiple parallel universes, and can often lead to massive complications in the canonical history of your favourite superheroes (“Howard the Duck has been a secret evil clone from another dimension this entire time!”). But then all of this can be retconned at any time in a single deflating ‘deus ex machina’ moment (“oh wait, no he wasn’t, that was close!”). This is the inherent problem with creating a tapestry of a comic book universes stretching out since the 30s, and one that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has managed to avoid. So far.
Thankfully Doctor Strange’s version of the multiverse stays away from all this, by sticking to the ‘parallel layers of existence’ view of reality – a mirror universe, a dark dimension, an astral plain, a universe made entirely out of fudge – you know, all the famous ones, so everything still remains fun.
This is also the first Marvel Cinematic Universe entry to be directed by a legit horror filmmaker. Scott Derrickson previously wrote and directed Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil and the fifth Hellraiser instalment. And hey, of all nine Hellraiser films, Inferno ranks right in the middle, which is not a terrible achievement. Incidentally, if you directed the fourth Hellraiser film I imagine you’ll probably be thinking “hey where’s my Marvel superhero movie? I was next in line!” I guess we’ll all know the resolution to that question when Marvel releases a film directed by Alan Smithee.
Scott Derrickson creates an incredible world for Doctor Strange to manipulate with his broken fingers. Although it initially seems like a flagrant Inception rip-off as buildings collapse into themselves, it soon becomes something far more complex. With our heroes racing around mind-bending Escher-style vistas of New York, while the mechanics of the multiverse breathtakingly unfold. And for those of you comic book fans of a certain age (oh you are still here), you’ll be happy to learn Doctor Strange takes some incredible trips into 2001-style headfuckery and neon psychedelia. If for nothing else, Doctor Strange is the most visually dazzling entry in the epic saga of Marvel.
It may also be Marvel’s strongest chapter in terms of coherently satisfying narrative and stellar levels of acting. There was an expectation going in that Doctor Strange would just be a formulaic origin story, with some general table-setting and a few shoe-horned links to the wider MCU, ultimately acting as a bridge between one episode to another (oh hai Captain America: Civil War). And Doctor Strange does threaten to become a remake of the first Iron Man film in the opening 20 minutes – Rich, smug playboy goes through personal hell, but comes out the other side with a complex balance of super-powers and shaky vulnerability – hmm… actually as I write that down, it does in fact sound like a retread of Iron Man. But there’s so much in Doctor Strange that sets it apart from all those other films about priveliged white men going on a hero’s journey that other people wouldn’t be able to take because they’re too poor. Honest!
Across the board, the performances are the very finest blessed upon a Marvel film. Benedict Cumberbatch is fantastic as the asshole doctor forced to the edge of reality to fix not just his shattered hands, but also the very fabric of time and space itself. Doctor Strange is given a compelling arc, where you genuinely dislike the pompous shitbag for the first half and gradually warm to him by the end, but without Strange losing his most interesting dickish qualities, As he witheringly refers to a lowly physiotherapist as “bachelors degree” you realise that Doctor Strange is one of Marvel’s douchiest creations.
It’s Tilda Swinton though who is not just the best thing about Doctor Strange, but also the best performance committed to the MCU. She’s warm, compassionate, patient, funny – it would be mean to suggest Swinton is playing against type here, but, well, you know – and ultimately Swinton brings about the most perfect little heartbreaking moment ever seen in a superhero movie.
And this is where we end our list of Doctor Strange’s triumphant firsts, and we get to the list of indicative problems with both the film and the fact that Marvel is still struggling to learn from its own mistakes.
Marvel has a diversity problem. You know this. Marvel knows this, and to some extent the problem is being addressed… on television (Agent Carter, Luke Cage, also the second season of Jessica Jones will be entirely directed by women). But the Cinematic Universe is struggling to achieve anything resembling balance. There are 14 movies centred around white male action heroes and it won’t be till the 18th where we’ll see the first central role for a black actor or the 21st where we’ll see the first central role for a woman.
Doctor Strange stands-up on its own terms as a thrillingly unique and entertaining piece of action cinema, elevated by trippy visuals and incredible performances. But Marvel’s complex relationship with representation is highlighted in Doctor Strange. The producers have tried to make it work, and in some ways very successfully, but in others less so.
Changing the The Ancient One from male Tibetan monk to a female Celtic mentor means there’s now a kickass middle-aged woman as one of the leads where there would ordinarily be a rather stereotypical Asian mystic. Bravo, for sure. But that also means that for a film where the bulk of its running time is set in Nepal, there’s a distinct lack of East Asian actors. Derrickson has claimed that Benedict Wong’s casting makes up for the Swinton whitewash, but his humourless librarian Wong is side-lined for most of the action. In a more positive development, the traditionally white character Karl Mordo is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gives a grounded, serious performance as befitting a serious, grounded BAFTA award winning actor, and his set-up for future instalments makes him seem all the more richer.
Sadly, Rachel McAdams’ Earth-bound surgeon and vague love interest Christine is barely given anything to do, and is quietly forgotten about by the end. A scene where Christine is mansplained medical procedures by the astral projection of Doctor Strange is particularly misguided.
Maybe we give Marvel such a hard time about representation because we hold them in the highest regard. Marvel is SO good at what it does, it has reinvented big event cinema with beautifully developed characters, genuine spectacle, endless surprises, emotion, wit and smarts going spare – and this is all perfected in Doctor Strange – but they’re also gargantuanly popular, so it feels like a wasted opportunity that they’re not working harder at nailing the really important stuff.