The (eventual) hero of this story is Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). He was not injected with a super serum, he doesn’t have any fancy gadgets, and he is not an alien or a Norse god. He is a neurosurgeon, an extremely skilled and wealthy neurosurgeon, a fact he takes enormous pride in. Unfortunately, he is also arrogant and very selfish, a fact that drives most people –such as his former girlfriend Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams)- away from him. But one day he crashes his car while driving recklessly, which leaves him with major and irreparable damage to his hands. Faced with the prospect of losing his career, along with the wealth and fame that he has attained from it, he tracks down a formerly-paralyzed man who made a seemingly miraculous recovery. Following a trail of clues to Nepal, he meets a mysterious woman called the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who opens his mind to a much greater world than he ever conceived: the world of magic.
The first thing to keep in mind is that Doctor Strange is not a superhero film. Much like how Guardians exists as a space opera in an otherwise superhero-based franchise and The Winter Soldier draws on elements of the espionage genre, Marvel has continued the diversification of their franchise by making a straight-up fantasy film. The magic that Strange learns really is magic, with all the tropes and concepts that entails. In fact, this movie has so little to do with the other characters and plots from the previous films that it’s easy to forget that its even part of the Marvel franchise. Which, in my opinion, is all for the better. To be fair, I’m biased because I like fantasy films more than I like superhero movies, but branching out will delay the inevitable superhero movie fatigue significantly.
The best way I can sum up this film is that it is one part magic viewed through the lens of Eastern occult practices, one part insane mind-bending visual effects, and one part witty Marvel dialogue. The magic as shown in the movie is less Harry Potter and more Buddhist mysticism mixed with a healthy dose of infinite alternate dimensions and pseudo-quantum mechanics. Some of the more crazy magic is illustrated by visual effects which are by far the best that have been seen yet in a superhero film. It’s like if a special effects artist went to see Inception while they were on an LSD trip, and then decided to replicate what they saw with CGI. To be honest, I didn’t realize how, well, bland most superhero films look until I saw Doctor Strange. Definitely make sure to see it in IMAX if you get the chance. And, of course, it has the cool one-liners we’ve all come to expect from Marvel films, but it is (thankfully) toned down a bit from The Avengers.
The film is not perfect though. Probably the most serious problem is with the pacing of the film. When Strange is learning the mystic arts, there is surprisingly little shown of his actual training, making it seem like he transitions from arrogant, disbelieving doctor into powerful sorcerer nearly overnight. It annoys me that the filmmakers missed a perfectly good opportunity for a cool training montage, particularly since an early scene established that Strange has a vast knowledge of old pop music. But the fact that the film clocks in at a comparatively short 115 minutes is likely the root of the problem- I felt like it could have benefitted from another 20 minutes or so.
So is Doctor Strange the best Marvel movie ever? No, but it is certainly one of their best. I strongly believe that the more diverse the Marvel Cinematic Universe becomes the stronger it will become. There is more than enough room in the franchise for superhero movies, science fiction movies, and fantasy movies to live side-by-side. And just as importantly Strange continues Marvel’s slow but steady improvements from simple superhero action films to a much more complex, diverse, and nuanced franchise. I can only hope that the writers and directors of future Marvel installments will keep this in mind.
P.S. And yes, of course, there is a mid-credits scene and an after-credits scene that you should probably stick around for.