Countdown to Infinity War: Revisiting Doctor Strange (2016)

Doctor Strange is one of those Marvel properties that’s been around for decades. He’s a character that fans of the comics can remember popping up all over the place in cameos. I think the first time I saw him was in an issue of Marvel Team-Up when Spider-Man found out Strange had become a werewolf. I always wish I had been able to track down the second issue of that story, because I wanted to see how that worked out.

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Strange has gotten his own book over the years, but he never seems able to grab hold of a fanbase, and ultimately his titles get canceled due to low sales. He’s a great character with a cool concept, but it’s a concept with a short shelf life. Honestly, I think there are maybe two big stories in Stephen’s life: fighting Dormammu, and losing his title as Sorcerer Supreme. Meaning, much like Ant-Man, the character was one I had no great urge to see in theaters, so I stayed home. Did I make the right choice? Well…

The plot: Doctor Stephen Strange, world renowned neurosurgeon, suffers a horrific accident that causes irreparable harm to his hands that costs him his career. Desperate to find a cure, he comes across the case of Jonathan Pangborn…

…a man who had suffered his own permanent injuries, but who now miraculously seems healed. This leads Strange to Asia, where he meets an order of mystics, among them Wong and Mordo…

…and their leader, the Ancient One.

Strange learns of a secret world full of magic, where the Ancient One’s order stands against evil beyond normal human comprehension, including entities such as the dreaded Dormammu…

…and its minions, among them Kaecilius…

…who seeks to turn the Earth over to his lord. Can Strange master the mystic arts in time to aid his newfound allies and prevent Earth’s downfall?

When it was announced that there was going to be a Doctor Strange movie, I couldn’t think of a single person better suited to the role than that guy who played the snarky Sherlock Holmes.

No, the other snarky Sherlock Holmes.

Yeah, that one. It wasn’t just a matter of looks, but screen presence and voice. And honestly, Benedict Cumberbatch’s time as Holmes gave him the sort of star power the movie needed. I’ve liked Cumberbatch since the first season of Sherlock (the less said about later seasons, the better), and he was the perfect choice for the role of Stephen Strange. If I could have chosen anyone else besides him, it would have been Hugh Laurie, but with Laurie going on 60, I can see why they went with a younger actor. The fact that Cumberbatch is sexier and more high profile certainly doesn’t hurt, now does it? He’s not a stranger to playing the loner genius, but give the man credit: this isn’t some Sherlock rehash here. Strange has a sense of humor, he’s arrogant in different ways, and he’s a man who appreciates the good life. And for it all to be stripped away, well…

Cumberbatch does a fantastic job as a man lost, who was so sure of his place in the world and had it all torn from him. Does this sound a little bit like what happened to a rich industrialist, or a god of thunder, or an expert on gamma rays? Yeah, their origins share similar elements, but that’s because those elements work. We love to see the arrogant taken down a peg, but we love tales of redemption even more. If you think that’s out of style, go ahead and tell that to the people who went to see Creed, and ask them if that movie was too old-fashioned to be cool.

I appreciate how well Strange’s foray into the mystic arts is handled. He doesn’t just believe at the drop of a hat; he requires a little persuasion…

…but once convinced, he takes his first step on the path of being the world’s Sorcerer Supreme. As for how long it takes to walk that path, well, we’ll get to that later.

Moving on to the rest of the cast, the most controversial member was Tilda Swinton…

…who plays Strange’s master, the Ancient One. The controversy stemmed from the fact that the character in the comic is a Tibetan male, but the fact is China bans movies that mention Tibet. I think that’s pretty sad, and it’s a pity Disney caved in so readily to what is in fact still an oppressive regime no matter how many World of Warcraft players they’ve got, but I’m not surprised. As to the gender swap, I don’t really have a problem with it. If you look at the long, long history of Doctor Strange, the Ancient One plays just a small role; he’s the Abin Sur to Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern, a guy who’s supposed to inspire then die. Yes, I’m oversimplifying a bit, but I don’t think by a whole lot. Should they have made him/her Chinese instead? Maybe the Marvel execs thought that would have just felt like outright pandering. Regardless, Swinton is a fantastic actor who lends the appropriate gravitas to the role, and if we’re lucky, we’ll see her in a cameo in the sequel.

One role I was glad to see retooled was that of Wong, played by Benedict Wong.

Over the years, the character of Wong has seen an evolution in the comics where he’s gone from being the stereotypical manservant to something more. So I appreciate that the filmmakers opted to make Wong a colleague rather than a servant in the film. Benedict does a solid job in the role as the stoic, skeptical veteran. As for Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo…

…I won’t claim to be very familiar with Ejiofor’s body of work. As a bad guy, he was outstanding in Serentity as the Operative, and I liked him very much in Spike Lee’s Inside Man. But going by this role alone, you can see the actor’s tremendous range as he’s able to inject Mordo with a sense of humor and a sense of humanity that made me instantly warm to him. Again, I was a bit torn on this casting decision, because once more in a Marvel movie, the hero gets a black sidekick, and by the third or fourth time, it does start to come across as a bit racist. But I also see this as part of a long game in setting up the sequel, where Mordo will most likely be Strange’s principal villain, and so they set out to cast the best actor they could for the role.

As for the rest of the cast, Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius and his zealots are mostly just… there.

I have nothing against Mads, but he’s not given much to work with here. He’s scraping the bottom of the barrel with his nihilistic rhetoric which only made me remember the worst things about Thor: The Dark World’s Malekith. He’s just cannon fodder until Strange meets the big bad at the end.

Rachel McAdams’ Dr. Christine Palmer is…

…well, again, I’m torn. I love Palmer in this movie because she’s empathetic and intelligent and rolls with the weird, and I’d love to see her in the sequel. But I’m afraid they’ll make her into Strange’s love interest, and I’m so hoping to instead see Clea, the true love of Stephen’s life from the comics. Is it possible to see Palmer in the film simply as Strange’s friend, and as someone he goes to talk to just for her honesty? Do they allow males and females to just be friends in these movies?

The film has some awesome visuals, and the action scenes taking place in the mirror dimension are especially stunning.

And I liked the way they depicted many of the spells, as well.

And I liked the use of the astral plane.

And… that’s it for the positives.

Frankly, the movie’s tone is all over the place. Doctor Strange should have ideally been a very serious film, but it feels like Marvel had no faith in the characters, so they played it safe and added a lot of unnecessary humor. For example, take a look at the clips below regarding the cloak of levitation, especially the last one.

That scene should have been powerful and dramatic. But no, it was turned into a joke. It’s annoying and took me right out of the film.

Speaking of playing it safe, what we’ve got here is the kind of paint-by-numbers origin story not seen since Iron Man. For a film that involves the Time Gem, perhaps the movie would have been better served if it been filmed in nonlinear fashion. Imagine if the movie started out with Strange being brought into the hospital, and Dr. Palmer has to treat his injuries. Strange has to explain where he’s been for years, how he dropped out of sight, and how he’s now inadvertently brought a war to her hospital. Instead, what we got was a boringly straightforward origin that we’ve seen numerous times. I think except for The Incredible Hulk, Marvel has given us the same kind of superhero origin story every single time. I’m not saying the origin isn’t important, particularly in a movie where we’re being introduced to a completely new facet of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s just I wish it had played out in a more original manner. What if Strange can’t tell Palmer (as well as the viewer) everything? What if we learned more during the second film when Strange has to fight Mordo? What if we learned more in Infinity War? This movie is about the mysteries of magic, so why do we need so much of that mystery revealed this early on?

There’s one aspect of the film that feels particularly problematic: when does this movie take place? When Strange is driving in his car, he gets a call about a potential patient who’s an Air Force colonel who sustained severe spinal injuries. Naturally, you assume this has to be Rhodey/War Machine, who was wounded in Civil War. But hold on; that would mean Strange had his accident, went through numerous surgeries and rehab, blew through all of his resources searching for alternative treatments, traveled to the Far East, met the Ancient One and Company, learned magic, fought Dormammu, and then learned enough magic to be powerful enough to take on Loki in Thor: Ragnarok. So… two years for all of that? My theory is the patient being discussed is the poor bastard piloting Justin Hammer’s monstrosity seen in Iron Man 2.

That guy was certainly in need of some expert medical attention.

So if the movie starts off, like Iron Man 2, in 2009, culminating in years of Strange studying the mystic arts, then by 2017 I could see him as the Sorcerer Supreme who so easily chats with gods. This also explains how Strange is on HYDRA’s hit list in 2014’s The Winter Soldier. Unfortunately, my theory falls apart because Strange is driving a Lamborghini Huracán Coupé, a vehicle that didn’t exist in 2009. Is the timeline really that important? Well, yeah, to me it is. This theory (I hesitate to call it my own, because I’m pretty sure it’s already been developed and discussed ad nauseum on comic book sites) is elegant and solves a lot problems… for the most part. Maybe HYDRA was thinking of a completely different Stephen Strange? Dammit.

The movie’s soundtrack is by Michael Giacchino, whose work is hit or miss with me. His Star Trek scores are competent, but he can get pretty repetitive. I did really enjoy his score for The Incredibles, though. As for Doctor Strange, he delivers a pretty strong work. It doesn’t sound like your typical superhero score; Instead, Giacchino goes for weird vibes more akin to a horror film with lots of chanting, so he definitely was feeling the project. And it’s hard to describe, but I was also getting a 1970s feel from some of the string arrangements. The Doctor Strange soundtrack is certainly very much its own animal, and I’m glad of it.

In the comics at the time, Doctor Strange had his own title, and I was buying it… for a while.

Released in 2015 and written by Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo, the series failed to really grab me. I think part of the reason was Aaron was saying the fundamental laws of magic had changed, yet none of that had any impact on the Secret Empire crossover event. Considering how one of Secret Empire’s plot points was Captain America being able to pick up Thor’s hammer due to a magic enchantment (not to mention the part where Scarlet Witch was possessed by a demon), you’d think there would have been more of an impact to what was going on in Strange’s title. Either Secret Empire writer Nick Spencer didn’t care, or the editors didn’t care, or the editors weren’t communicating. I think by this point, Marvel was on autopilot where their big crossover events were concerned.

So what’s in store for Doctor Strange these days? Why, he’s going to space.

No, I’m not making that up.

Next up: Speaking of space, we get a return visit from a certain ragtag group of guardians!

Tag: Countdown to Infinity War

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  • John

    Actually if I remember correctly the reference to the Air Force officer was injured testing experimental armor, but it wasn’t a direct reference to anything from previous movies. I think the director or the writer was asked that in an interview and said it was supposed to just be a reference to the advanced tech in the MCU.

    As for the movie I skipped it in theaters and rented it from Red Box, it was better than I thought but I also thought it mirrored the first Iron Man a little too much.

  • Jamal Jenkins

    The Groundhog Day sequence with Dormammu was the best part of the film.

    • Andy Street

      Yes – it was refreshing to have the villain defeated by some method other than punching it repeatedly in the face for once.

    • Yep, and the theme of time and cycles was spread out thru the movie. Especially with the collection of watches at the start of the movie which is sold off bit by bit, ultimately just one broken watch is all Strange has.

      The idea that stopping time until he can move on from his personal hang-ups/demons (Dormamu is also played by Cumberbatch) is a good narrative metaphor.

  • StarlightForPrincess

    For me, this is one of the best MCU movies overall, partly because of the mix of seriousness and comedy in the tone.

    • Thomas Stockel

      I just think there was a little too much comedy. Just my opinion is all.