One exception (some would argue two) aside, 2016 has been a great year for superhero movies. Deadpool was a massive financial success (though I admit that I have no interest in seeing it), Civil War was probably the best superhero movie to date, and I am thrilled to see that Marvel has closed out the year with Doctor Strange, a movie that in many ways turns their universe on its head (both literally and figuratively).
Many reviewers have focused on the mind-bending visuals, and it is true that Doctor Strange pushes the limits of what you can believably do on screen. But while the visuals make Doctor Strange a damn fun movie, but they aren’t what make it a great movie. What makes this film truly great is that it introduces a whole new way of thinking into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Until this point, the MCU has been basically materialist (with the exception of the brilliant use of Matt Murdock’s Catholicism in Daredevil): even the “magic” of Asgard is basically explained as a form of science the people of Midgard (Earth) don’t yet understand. But Doctor Strange shatters that materialism.
“You think you know how the world works,” the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) tells Stephen Strange. “You think this material universe is all there is. What if I told you that the reality you know is one of many?” She might as well be talking to the audience, because unlike Thor, this movie takes away any option that we had for falling back on a safe and banal scientism.
In a key scene, for example (see the video below), Strange tells the Ancient One, “I don’t believe in fairytales about chakras or energy or the power of belief.” But rather than allowing him to cling to that belief, the Ancient One demolishes it with one gesture of her hand. In the same way, the movie leaves us no chance of clinging to the materialism that we have accepted for the last thirteen movies.
Where Captain America: Civil War explored politics with an astonishing frankness and wisdom, Doctor Strange is spiritually serious and draws upon a wide variety of sources for truth—from eastern philosophy to a metaphor for freedom and power that could have come straight out of Saint Augustine or John Milton.
All this is aided by a cast that is top-notch. Cumberbatch is sympathetic even in his worst moments; Swinton brings a grace, beauty, and humility to the Ancient One that at times reminded me of Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, and at the same time she conveys just how powerful and threatening the Sorcerer Supreme is; and Ejiofor, Adams, and Wong all turn in strong performances. Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is a one-and-done villain, but unlike Malekith from Thor: The Dark World, Kaecilius’s motives are persuasive and beautifully expressed.
Even though I’d rank it in Marvel’s top five, Doctor Strange does have one weakness: its humor. While a few of the jokes work, several others fell flat for me (especially “Beyonce”). And one of the good jokes that runs throughout the movie—Strange’s insistence on being called “Doctor”—ended up backfiring with the audience at my viewing. Because Strange spends much of the movie trying (with humorous effect) to convince people to call him “Doctor,” half the audience at my viewing ended up laughing through one of the film’s most poignant moments. In that scene, Strange tells another character why the medical title is so important to him—because it means that his job is to save lives, not take them and not to rule them as a master—but the seriousness of the scene was lost because many of the people in the audience thought that it was another joke.
But that’s a small complaint, a minor flaw that ultimately gets lost in some of Marvel’s best storytelling to date. I hope that the movie makes a lot of money this weekend so that within the next few weeks the studio announces a Derrickson-directed sequel.