Retro Review: Doctor Strange
This is our MarvelBlog Retro Review of Doctor Strange…and there’s a Marvel character I’m not sure we’re supposed to like.
In fact, during the first season of What If…?, this character turns heel and almost devours the multiverse. Does that sound like a hero to you?
Yes, Stephen Strange has always danced dangerously close to the flames, which explains why he has such a divisive reputation among Marvel fans.
In today’s retro review, I will re-evaluate Doctor Strange, which is somehow one of my least favorite MCU movies while possessing one of the best climaxes.
Tony Stark by Another Name
Preternaturally gifted. Impossibly arrogant. Super-rich playboy.
All these words could describe Tony Stark, the self-professed Iron Man whose charisma anchored the first generation of the MCU.
If it ain’t broke, why fix it? That’s the underlying thought process behind Doctor Strange, as all those same generalities apply to Stephen Strange…and Batman.
Don’t mistake the point here. Bruce Wayne debuted decades ahead of these characters, and his influence remains unmistakable in Marvel even now.
In fact, an upcoming MCU series, Moon Knight, will introduce a third character along these lines. So, Marvel believes the system works.
With Doctor Strange, the story shows how thin the line between darkness and light is, especially for potentially evil sorcerers.
The villain in the piece is Master Kaecilius, a former student of the Ancient One who has since decided he would like ultimate power for his own.
If that means beheading a few librarians, so be it. He’s saving a fortune on late fees, too.
The idea here centers on the dangers of blatant power grabs by evil wizards, something any videogame player understands.
However, the unlikely person to stop Kaecilius is a muggle surgeon named Stephen Strange.
He has it all, including a girlfriend who starred in The Notebook and a sports car that you probably can’t even afford in Forza, much less real life.
Doctor Strange also employs the “rebel who plays by his own rules” cliché. A different surgeon at the hospital hates the good (?) doctor and rails against his practices.
Because of the rules of Hollywood, the less attractive, rules-oriented person is obviously in the wrong, even though literally every criticism he makes of Strange is valid.
That’ll teach you to follow the rules and not be naturally handsome, Poindexter!
Dude’s even named Nicodemus. Come on!
Arrogant protagonists in fancy sports cars have a 100 percent chance of car crashes in Hollywood. It’s ironclad celluloid law.
Sure enough, Icarus flies too close to the sun while looking at a patient’s x-ray on his iPad. Soon, he’s in surgery himself and awakens to discover his hands destroyed.
Therein ends the surgical career of one Stephen Strange. Of course, like so many of us during The Great Resignation, the doctor finds a new career path.
He learns of a mystical place known as Kamar-Taj, where he might find a cure for his affliction.
Unbeknownst to Strange, he meets The Ancient One, who serves him tea and holistic logic. Also, Mordo is there.
You can think of him as a self-loathing sorcerer who does magic but wants to see all magic eliminated from the universe. It’s the MCU equivalent of those heinous conversion therapy camps.
In a huge, shocking twist, Mordo will turn heel by the end of this film. And if you’re surprised by that, I don’t know how you get out of bed in the morning. The rising sun must blow your mind.
Anyway, we get lots of mystical crap wherein Strange gets his soul literally knocked out of his body, an Ancient One specialty.
He also transverses the universe, watches stars explode, and rotates in the Earth’s atmosphere.
The whole thing is basically a Pink Floyd show at the planetarium, and you’re chasing the dragon. HARD.
Doctor Strange earned an Academy Award nomination for its visual effects and legitimately should have won over Jungle Book.
Doctor Strange vs. the People with Bad Eye Makeup
The story, on the other hand, is decidedly lesser Marvel. I just cannot get past how predictable and paint-by-numbers it is.
I suspect that director Scott Derrickson recognized this fact and tried to disguise the problem through the glinty special effects.
The casting also helps. I’ve been on the Tilda Swinton bandwagon ever since The Deep End, which I ranked in my top three for 2001.
She’s never been more entertaining or decidedly commercial than during her time in the MCU. She IS the Ancient One and makes the character compelling.
Even though Mordo isn’t fully developed as a frenemy, Chiwetel Ejiofor is one of the greatest living actors and chews the scenery here.
I’d like to say that the incredibly talented Rachel McAdams is more than just The Girlfriend here, but I cannot tell that lie.
If you want to watch her act, you should pick Spotlight or Disobedience instead. She’s also terrific in Red Eye, an underrated suspense thriller.
Of course, the story lives and dies with Benedict Cumberbatch. He has since made Stephen Strange his own so much that nobody ever talks about replacing him.
I mean, we’ve got new Hawkeyes and Captain Americas and Black Widows and even a new Sorcerer Supreme. Doctor Strange remains proprietary.
This cast is so good that Michael Stuhlbarg, Benedict Wong, and Mads Mikkelson are almost incidental to it…and Mikkelson is playing the villain in the piece!
Speaking of which, Marvel continues its trend of one bad guy with several faceless underlings, only the underlings have faces this time. And terrible eye makeup.
I guess the idea is that all the evil has sucked the souls out of their bodies through their eyes or something? I dunno. It’s weird and silly and hard to take seriously.
The Salvation of Doctor Strange
You can tell that I have MANY problems with Doctor Strange. Even so, I love two scenes in the film.
One involves the surgery McAdams’ character performs on Strange, the one with astral projection. It’s funny.
Also, as far as secret identity reveals go, it’s definitely the most unusual one to date. And the falling mop at the end is a REALLY good joke.
Then, we watch as the Ancient One accepts her fate and passes into the next plane of existence. It’s profound, especially because she wants to watch the snow.
How relatable is that? We all prioritize those singular moments of beauty.
Still, everyone realizes what matters most in Doctor Strange. It’s the odd negotiation between Dormammu and the Sorcerer Supreme.
Derrickson’s directorial career started with horror, as that’s where he made his bones. So, it’s fitting that he would choose a Lovecraftian monster for the end.
Strange flies into some unimaginable alien realm, the Dark Dimension, and then…dies repeatedly. The cartoon violence in these sequences is hysterical.
Somehow, Dormammu becomes the victim of this story, trapped in a time loop of murder. The fact that he’s the perpetrator, not the victim, proves irrelevant.
Dormammu has lost his power and control in the Dark Dimension, and that’s what matters.
Eventually, the god-like entity capitulates because of nothing more than the concept of time.
Meanwhile, the thematic nature of Doctor Strange resonates here. He’s someone defined by his pain, and not just symbolically.
Doctor Strange switches from derivative to unforgettable during those final few minutes of the film. I’m in awe of that.
However, I’m also frustrated that we didn’t get an entire movie along those lines. That’s why I’m so excited for the sequel.
Overall, Doctor Strange remains a B+ movie with an A+++ ending.
And that’s our Retro Review of Doctor Strange! What did you think of the film? Let us know below! \