Dr. Strange is a unique entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in more ways than one. First off, it released far earlier than any of the other movies, way back in 1978. It never saw a theatrical release, as it went straight to TV. It’s also the first MCU movie where the main villain is a woman. To be more specific, Morgan le Fay is Stephan Strange’s main opponent. The movie also features Dr. Strange’s eventual wife, Clea Lake. Even though the movie is PG, in a lot of ways it feels like a softcore porn. The acting is really cheesy, Dr. Strange has a pure 70’s mustache, and it’s got special effects that will make you feel like you’re on drugs. Even the music gives you that general feel, when it’s not giving you the sense that something really intense is about to happen.
OK, enough kidding around. That said, besides the 1978 movie being in the MCU and the softcore porn feel, everything I said is true. The 1978 Dr. Strange movie was initially intended to be the pilot for a TV series in the same vein as The Incredible Hulk, but that never came to fruition. I looked at the movie for my old blog, and while I won’t link to that blog at all, I may look at this movie again someday here. Save for a couple animated specials, it would be years before we’d get another Dr. Strange movie. Various film adaptations had been in the works since the mid 1980’s, until Paramount Pictures acquired the rights in 2005, along with Iron Man, Thor and others. Several writers were hired in 2010 to write a treatment.
The writing process was taken over by several writing teams until they landed on Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill and director Scott Derrickson. Derrickson landed the director’s seat after having written a 12-page scene for the film featuring Strange and an assailant fighting in the astral plane while a doctor attempted to save his physical life in a hospital. The scene, which made it into the final film, was based on the limited series Doctor Strange: The Oath, from 2007.
From early on, Marvel Studios, Derrickson and Spalths all envisioned Benedict Cumberbatch playing the role, and I remember a lot of fans also preferred him as the sorcerer supreme. In fact the fans pushed for Cumberbatch to be in the movie. At first however, Cumberbatch couldn’t sign onto the film due to other commitments. Marvel did also consider hiring Tom Hardy and Jared Leto for the lead role. The casting negotiations took nearly 6 months, with others considered including Ewen McGregor, Matthew McConaughley, Colin Farrel and even Keanu Reeves. Eventually, Cumberbatch signed onto the film, and they agreed to rearrange the filming schedule so he could appear. This also meant that they needed to push the film back to November of 2016 instead of the initially preferred late summer release. In September of 2015, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn stated that most of the first movie’s crew couldn’t return for the sequel because they committed to Doctor Strange to help it get done on time.
Astrophysicist writer Adam Frank served as a scientific consultant for the film, already having known Derrickson previously. Being a lifelong Marvel fan didn’t hurt either.
The movie held its international premier in Hong Kong on October 13, 2016, and released worldwide on November 4, nearly 4 months after its initially planned release. The movie ended up earning $677 million on a budget somewhere between $165 and $236 million. The numbers aren’t entirely clear on this one, but that did make it a success. It did well critically as well, earning an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 7.3/10. Variety went as far as to call it “Marvel’s most satisfying entry since Spider-Man 2.” The New York Times review stated “The giddily enjoyable Doctor Strange … is part of Marvel’s strategy for world domination, yet it’s also so visually transfixing, so beautiful and nimble that you may even briefly forget the brand.” However, the review on RogerEbert.com said that, for all its impressive visuals, “Doctor Strange isn’t the evolutionary step forward for Marvel that it needs to be storytelling-wise.”
Personally, I really like this movie. Yes, it has noticeable similarities to the first Iron Man, but what separates it is the characters, the general atmosphere, and the fact that Doctor Strange doesn’t learn his real lesson until really late in the movie. Stephen Strange starts out as a brilliant neurosurgeon. He also happens to be incredibly arrogant, to the point where he’s unbearable to some of his colleagues. He’s also obsessed with both work and his reputation. It leads to some rather distracted driving that causes a major crash and destroys his hands.
After medical sciences fail him, his search for recovery leads him to The Ancient One, where he learns about the mystical arts, alternate dimensions how to open his mind. Cumberbatch commented that the movie’s mysticism resonated with his on a personal level, as he spent a gap year teaching English at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India, which he said he benefited from on a profound spiritual level.
Strange proves to be a quick student on an intellectual level, but he struggles a lot with the actual casting side of things. Tilda Swan gives The Ancient One a brilliant, otherworldly performance, who seems to know exactly how to help Strange overcome his non-ability to surrender. But even as he quickly learns about spells, he doesn’t truly learn his lesson until after a major action scene that sees a major character die.
“It’s not about you.”
Doctor Strange doesn’t start fighting for anything bigger than himself until the movie is nearly over, but it’s a lesson that feels well deserved. You can also tell at that point that he becomes much more willing to sacrifice himself for the bigger picture. In fact he does that at the end of the film, directly facing off Dormammu. Cumberbatch also voices the interdimensional demon, saying that he felt the character being a horrific reflection of Strange would work better than just “being a big ghoulish monster.” You’ve also got Tilda Swinton masterfully portraying The Ancient One, giving the former Sorcerer Supreme an otherworldly feel. I remember there being a mini controversy around the fact that the Ancient One wasn’t portrayed by an Asian actor, but the movie still has Benedict Wong (of Hong Kong descent) playing Wong. As long as Swinton did well with the part, which she did, I don’t see a big issue here.
As much as Strange’s personal journey is well written, and the villain Kaecillius (played by Mads Mikkelsen). The special effects in this movie are basically Inception on crack, with mid-air broken mirror effects, buildings and roads folding all over the place, spontaneous visual illusions and all sorts of lighting effects. There are times when the visuals are so overwhelmingly chaotic that it’s a bit hard to follow what’s happening, but I’m pretty sure that’s intentional. It also means there are a couple scenes in the movie that probably aren’t safe for people with epilepsy.
Doctor Strange is a visual experience with some great storytelling behind it. Cumberbatch is pretty much perfect as Dr. Strange, the same way that Robert Downey Jr. is perfect for Tony Stark. The movie delves into Marvel’s mystical side without getting too deep and confusing for new viewers. Because it’s similar in multiple ways to Iron Man, it does reduce its re-watchability a bit, but it’s still definitely worth checking out if you haven’t yet.
Next up is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, a movie that has all the elements necessary to be a better movie than the first, yet somehow isn’t. I look forward to trying to figure out exactly why. Then it’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, followed by Thor: Ragnorok. We’re getting close to where the MCU currently is, with only 7 movies to go to fully catch up with the MCU. Hopefully I can get there before Avengers: Endgame releases.