When I walked into the theater for Doctor Strange, I was not expecting many surprises. I’ve read enough of the good Doctor’s comic adventures over the years and was following the production of this movie closely enough that I had a pretty reasonable idea of what was going to be in it. What I was most interested in were three things: how they would introduce magic into the MCU, how they would handle and update some tricky characters, and finally how they would finagle certain plot elements.
Of the three, I enjoyed one, was mostly satisfied with another, and a bit disappointed with the third. I found the movie good, but not great, falling somewhere in the upper-mid tier of MCU movies along with Ant-Man and the first Iron Man.
Let’s start with the magic. One of my first articles for this site was on the topic, which was fairly contentious before the movie came out. Many people feared the movie would take the route of the Thor movies, comparing magic to advanced technology, or just that there would be tonal issues in introducing a truly supernatural concept into what has largely been a sci-fi setting.
Looking back over that article, my predictions were fairly accurate. The movie sticks to the comics quite closely: magic in the MCU is an exotic energy, drawn from other dimensions, some of which house hostile or benevolent entities. Those dimensions often operate on entirely different physical laws and are nearly incomprehensible to the human mind. The movie really only has two sequences where you get to see these alien dimensions, but they’re instantly among the most memorable MCU scenes, making good use of the surreal imagery of Steve Ditko. These sequences were probably my favorite parts of the movie, especially the second one set in the Dark Dimension.
Director Scott Derrickson also talked at length, before the movie came out, about the difficulty in filming magic. Too often, as in some of the Harry Potter movies, it becomes a matter of beams of light flying back and forth, with the audience not having a clear idea of what it does or how it’s being countered. The movie’s solution to that borrows heavily from a comic retelling Strange’s origin, called Strange: Beginning and Endings, also a major inspiration for the direct-to-video Dr. Strange animated movie that came out a few years ago. Magical combat in all three is reinterpreted as a form of martial arts, incorporating glowing mandalas, portals, and a few energy weapons.
The movie’s main addition to this is the reality-bending magic of The Ancient One and Kaecilius, which set up a couple of major set pieces in the film. The effect is enjoyable, but it was also heavily advertised in the movie’s trailers and doesn’t seem as refreshing or as creative as the Ditkoesque dimensions showcased elsewhere.
Part of the issue is that the action in these moments, especially the big chase sequence that culminates in the Ancient One’s death, feels ungrounded. All the world-warping effects lack a certain weight, the stakes of a building shifting one way and not another aren’t always clear, and they become repetitive after a while. My hope is they don’t rely too much on this effect in future Doctor Strange movies and give the sorcerers some other tricks to show off. I liked that the movie incorporated the basic framework of the comic books’ magic, as it’s an approach with a lot of potential and boasts visuals not often seen in other films. Other dimensions open up untold possibilities, from seeing alternate versions of the Marvel universe to the radically bizarre visuals of more alien realities.
The martial arts combat was less impressive, as I can see people being punched and kicked in almost any Marvel movie. Magic allows you to get very visually creative and while I understand that carries the risk of bedlam scenes of multicolored lights doing God knows what, I feel there needs to be some middle ground. The movie’s final battle, which plays around with time manipulation and the vast powers of Dormammu, gets a lot more inventive and I hope to see more of that sort of thing going forward with the series.
If the magic and the other dimensions were among my favorite parts of the film, the characters come second, but it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Rachel McAdams’ role as Christine Palmer, clearly a variant on the character of Night Nurse in the Doctor Strange story The Oath (the astral projection surgery is lifted right out of the comic, with an added fight) doesn’t get a lot to do. She’s really there to show off Strange’s character development, which we’ll get to in a bit, but suffice to say I’m not sure it justifies this character’s inclusion. Palmer’s role would make more sense if a stronger contrast existed between Strange before and after his hero’s journey. She could have been the audience surrogate, reacting to those changes. Instead, she’s largely abandoned in the second half of the movie, appearing for one setpiece and a few jokes.
Mads Mikkelsen‘s Kaecilius, our main villain, is an MCU villain. There’s no way around it. They have a type. He’s better than some, definitely a step above Malekith or Ronan, but he’s still a thinly sketched character. His beef with the Ancient One is undercooked, despite it being his primary motivation. It’s not clear why his disagreement with her would immediately lead to violence. For example, he brutally kills a hapless librarian in his first scene, which undercuts the nuance applied to him later. It would have been more interesting if he had merely restrained the man, showing that although Kaecilius is a radical opposed to the Ancient One, he’s misguided and not a monster. Instead, we see quickly that he’s cruel, merciless, and also more than a bit dumb in that he steals a page instead of a whole book, which comes back to bite him later, and doesn’t steal the nearby Eye of Agamotto, despite it being featured in the very pages he has stolen.
So not all of the characters did it for me, but others did. Wong, aside from a few tepid jokes about Beyoncé, is a marked improvement over his comic book character. Updating him was always going to be tricky and the movie did a commendable job, keeping his trademark stoicism, but giving him a more dignified job than “manservant.” One of the main problems with the character in the comics was that Strange was often made superior to Wong. Various stories tried to rectify this by making them equal, but the movie takes it further and makes Wong superior to Strange in terms of knowledge and experience. Their personal relationship is only touched on, but they should make a good pair going forward, especially if the humor is more refined.
The other controversial character from the comics, the Ancient One, is less engaging. On the one hand, she’s played by Tilda Swinton, who is delightful as always in her delivery but doesn’t get a ton to work with here. Few of her lines are very memorable and her background is an open void.
We’re told she’s immortal and this ends up being a major plot point, but we never see any evidence of it. It’s just mentioned over and over and we see she can do magic. It’s a perfect opportunity for a bit of fun that is missed. There’s a pointless scene where it’s mentioned she’s Celtic. She could have made an offhand mention to meeting Julius Caesar when he conquered the Celts in Gaul, or Mordo could have shown a skeptical Strange an ancient Celtic pictograph that looks like her, but we get nothing. Her immortality is unexplored, despite being foundational to the character arcs of both Mordo and Kaecilius. The movie has a lot of exposition like this, where information could have been conveyed in a smoother way, but instead is just bluntly stated.
The Ancient One dies in virtually every retelling of Doctor Strange’s origin, which is almost inevitably made into a plot revolving around Dormammu. In the comic, the Ancient One died long after the origin story, in a plot involving a different villain, and under much more dramatic circumstances: in order to save the world, Strange was forced to kill his own mentor. I had hoped the movie might keep this interesting element and it would have made somewhat more sense in the movie than in some other versions of the story. Here, The Ancient One is a morally compromised character and sacrificing herself for the good of the world would have given her a more complete arc of her own while forcing Strange to make a difficult and emotionally compelling choice.
Perhaps the most interesting character in the movie, for me, was Mordo. It was announced early on that Mordo in the MCU would be a composite of characters from the comics, and I was curious to see who was thrown into the mix. The biggest influence I could detect was the character of Silver Dagger, one of Strange’s few human villains. Dagger is a deeply religious man who hates sorcerers, damning himself (in his eyes) by using their own magical powers against them. He’s a master of close-quarters combat, using magic to give himself an edge as he hunts down mages and murders them one at a time. Mordo, a man clearly driven by a strong ethical code and a skilled melee fighter, has his faith in the Ancient One shaken and becomes a fanatical hunter of sorcerers.
Of all the characters in the film, Mordo has perhaps the most complete arc, going from a true believer to a man who loses faith and turns to a darker path. Compared to his comic book counterpart, who is a megalomaniacal hedonist, he’s a much more engaging character. I’m interested to see where he goes next, as it’s hard to picture him going on to serve Dormammu, as he did in his most notable stories.
Speaking of Dormammu, he was one of my favorite parts of the movie. I saw a number of mixed reactions to his interpretation in the movie, with a number of comparisons to the abominable space-cloud version of Galactus from the old Fantastic Four movie, but for me, this version of Dormammu felt right on the money. Perhaps people were expecting something more along the lines of the more overtly demonic version of Dormammu of later years and of the Marvel vs Capcom games, where Dormammu has probably gotten his biggest exposure to the public at large.
I speculated a while back that the Doctor Strange movie might go a different path, utilizing the more alien and otherworldly Dormammu of the earlier comics. The movie certainly does that, with this version of Dormammu and the Dark Dimension operating on such a different level of physics that they don’t even understand time. It also plays up the Dread Lord as a dimensional conqueror and less of a pure demon. He’s mainly interested in expanding his empire, someone who may be an enemy but you can make treaties and ceasefires with him.
Finally, I come to Strange himself and as the main character of this film his arc ties in a lot with my feelings on the overall plot. One can’t deny that Strange has a lot of similarities to Tony Stark. Both are arrogant American men who travel to an Eastern country, are humbled by a crippling injury, and reevaluate their life choices thanks to a mentor they meet in that Eastern country, choosing to go on to become heroes. It was always going to be tricky for the movie to find a way to distinguish them and show what makes them distinct characters. Personally, I have always felt that Stark’s origin story focuses more on redemption as a theme while Strange’s focuses more on enlightenment. At the end of his origin, Stark is largely the same man, now seeking atonement for his misdeeds. Strange, conversely, is almost entirely different from his former self in the comics, having discovered a higher calling, leaving his old life behind
The movie, unfortunately, doesn’t really do that good a job with this. I had thought that the best way to do it might be to tell Strange’s story non-linearly, which would have fit well with this film’s focus on time-warping shenanigans. It would be easier to sell Strange’s transformation if we saw him as a good man and sorcerer first, then learned about his past retroactively. Instead, the movie chooses to lessen the degree of Strange’s evolution as a whole while simultaneously making him more of a witty snarker. The result is that his similarities to Tony Stark stand out even more, and what makes Doctor Strange unique and interesting as a character is dampened. Hopefully, once the two characters start appearing together in the next Avengers movies we’ll see some steps taken to give them independent voices from one another. Otherwise, some scenes in Infinity War might sound like Tony Stark arguing with himself, only sometimes he mentions magic.
The MCU movies have been accused of being formulaic and I think there’s a lot of merit to that charge. In the past, Kevin Feige and other figures at Marvel argued one of the strengths of the franchise was that, despite everything taking place in the same universe, each movie occupied its own sort of sub-genre. Guardians of the Galaxy was a space opera, Captain American: The Winter Soldier was a political thriller, Doctor Strange a fantasy movie. In the end, though, these are largely aesthetics. Many of the movies have deep structural similarities. They’re different but they feel cut from the same cloth and it’s a very safe, comforting cloth. Risks taken are surface level. The movie’s handling of Strange’s origin is as safe as it can be, which also means it’s not particularly engaging.
One of the reasons I loved the finale with Dormammu in this movie was that it broke with the formula. While previous Marvel movies tend to end with a big duel between two super-powered equals (often with similar powers) or a fight against a horde of mooks, Doctor Strange wins the day by not fighting. Dormammu is far beyond him in raw strength, and cannot be defeated by force, so Strange uses his wits, outthinking and outmaneuvering his otherwise superior foe. It’s a charming, clever part in a movie were a great deal of the plot feels weightless and generic and the main character’s growth (such as it is) feels unearned.
My feelings about the overall structure of the movie, and Strange’s character arc, in particular, may not be the rosiest, but I did like that the movie set up numerous avenues for sequels. The origin story is out of the way and maybe now things can get a little weirder. Derrickson and his writers smartly chose not to make Strange the Sorcerer Supreme by the end of the movie: they realized they had cut his character development too short and he wasn’t ready for that yet. The path to becoming the Ancient One’s successor still lies ahead of him. Likewise, the depths of the Dark Dimension have not yet been explored, Dormammu is still lurking in the wings, new threats are circling now that Earth’s defensive wards have been weakened, and Mordo is forging a new, sinister destiny for himself.
It’s a lot to leave me hopeful. Despite being lukewarm on this film, I’m looking forward to the inevitable sequel, and hope it can capitalize on the strengths of the first film while leaving the weaknesses behind.
Also, the Cloak of Levitation is cool as hell.