Inspired by its trippy source material, that being Steve Ditko’s original Strange Tales comics from the ‘60s, Doctor Strange the movie is packed with wild, swirling visuals more akin to a CGI acid trip than the usual Marvel movie effects. They’re not liable to re-wire your brain like, say, going beyond the infinite in 2001 or the DMT trip from Enter The Void, but compared to any other superhero flick they’re uniquely bizarro.
The psychedelic visuals are the best thing about Doctor Strange. It’s a pleasure to see superhero CGI used for something other than men in tights smashing buildings. Not that Doctor Strange is without its buildings. I can’t imagine why, but director Scott Derickson fills the middle of the film with effects purposely (he’s said as much) reminiscent of the folding cities from Inception. Not sure what the point is there. To Strange’s credit, it takes swirling impossible cities to another, weirder level. But still. Having begun the movie with original, un-Inception-like city weirdness, then flinging us into worlds far trippier and mind-bending, the mid-movie return to the banality of buildings is a visual let-down.
But so it goes when your acid trip is designed by Hollywood.
On the less impressive side is the story, which if you’ve ever seen a superhero movie, you know front to back. This is an origin story, because everyone loves origin stories, and it strays not at all from the required beats we’ve come to loathe—err, I mean, to expect.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange, a selfish, egomaniacal, genius neurosurgeon who destroys his hands in a car accident. Searching for a way to heal himself once western medicine fails, he finds his way to Kathmandu and the Ancient One, a surprisingly peppy and very white Tilda Swinton, and her band of space and energy-bending accolytes.
The Ancient One is a bit put out by her last ego-driven student, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who stole a page of spells and absconded with his followers in the movie’s opening scene. He’s got a plan to summon an ancient, interdimensional space-demon, Dormammu, and allow him to eat the Earth, thereby granting everyone everlasting life. Sounds like a poorly thought-out plan to me. Never invite demons from the timeless Dark Dimension to destroy Earth! When will people learn?
So, as I was saying, the Ancient One doesn’t want to teach Strange, another self-interested jerk, her mystical secrets. But then he waits outside in the cold for five hours, so hey, he must want it bad, and his lessons begin.
Time is an issue with Doctor Strange. Plotwise, for one thing, but for another, everything in the movie happens too quickly. Strange’s training seems to last about a week. I know he’s a super-genius and all, but is that really the measure of spiritual training? A photographic memory? It’s not that hard to show the passage of time in movies. Seems like they could have broken Strange down more believably, before he becomes the greatest wielder of electro-spiritual-extra-dimensional powers of all time. Which he does.
The spiritual lessons he learns, which we might call eastern religions 101, are also glossed over as quickly as possible: Forget all you know, death is not to be feared, it’s not about you. Got it? Good. Now let’s go kick Dormammu’s ass!
The final battle is another visual trip-out. Our heroes, Strange, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor—and hey, with a name like Mordo, he’s definitely going to stay on the side of good, am I right?), and Wong (Benedict Wong), fight the baddies while all around them a city minutes ago destroyed by the Dormammu’s arrival is time-reversed to its former un-blown-up state. Does this make any sense? I don’t know, but—best of all—I don’t care!
This is how explodely men-in-tights movies are supposed to work and so rarely do. Doctor Strange pulls this off with a simple yet underutilized trick: it isn’t brain-deadeningly stupid. It’s no work of genius, but for what it is, it rarely trips itself up with awful dialogue or dull scenes or moronic plotting. What it does it does well enough that you can sit back and let your mind be blown by all the crazy leaps into the infinite.
So, yes, after the unfortunate muddling about with twirling kaleidoscopic buildings, we get back to serious trippiness at movie’s end. Strange enters the Dark Dimension (or thereabouts?) and meets Dormammu face to face. And then, best of all, he defeats him with a thematically meaningful trick.
If you don’t want to know what that trick is, skip down a ways. What Strange does is to create a repeating timeloop in which he and Dormammu are trapped. Dormammu can kill Strange if he wants—and he does, over and over again—but then the loop will begin anew, Strange will reappear, and he’ll have to be either killed again or dealt with in a more constructive way. This is supposed to show Strange’s new found selflessness: he’s willing to be killed over and over again for eternity to save all humanity. Take that, Jesus—you only had to die once, ya lousy slacker.
On top of that, it’s suggestive of samsara, the cyclical death and rebirth of all that is. So, a nicely thematic, thought-provoking, monster-befuddling ending to a superhero movie.
It’s only too bad that it happens so quickly. Once again, if we’d been allowed to see Strange suffer a little more as he died over and over again, if we’d been given the feeling that his deaths lasted, say, millions of years before Dormammu finally gave in, it would have granted the character a deeper and more profound realization. Instead, Strange is pretty smug while enacting his plan, and I was left thinking he didn’t seem especially ego-free at movie’s end.
A depth to his suffering, to his learning, to his growth—this is what Doctor Strange cries out for.
It’s still a good time, mind you. Sparkly visuals, Buddhist themes if not explored at least driving the story, quality actors doing good work, a story not actively stupid; it’s more than we (or I, anyway) have come to expect from Marvel. So even if some quibbles come to mind while watching it, for the most part you don’t care until it’s over and you find yourself thinking and writing about it. Then you, like me, might quibble.
Or you might have another toke and watch it again.