Doctor Strange (2016), the Sorcerer Supreme of Marvel Comics, is the latest comic book hero to join Marvel’s cinematic universe and Benedict Cumberbatch (in his best impression of American arrogance) plays the broken neurosurgeon who dons the Cloak of Levitation and the Eye of Agamotto to bring magic to the MCU.
He’s Stephen Strange, a surgical superstar who ruins his hands in a car wreck (spectacular, of course, with all the CGI at the disposal of Marvel Studios to turn a fiery crash into an apocalyptic event) and abandons the love of his life (fellow surgeon Rachel McAdams) in self-pity, desperate self-help miracle cures, and an odyssey to a Nepal monastery. He just wants his career back but a mysterious figure known as The Ancient One sends him on an astral trip to the heart of the galaxy and a journey to the center of him mind and he’s sold: “Teach me.”
Tilda Swinton plays The Ancient One, transforming the Chinese mystic master of the comics into a gender-neutral Druid who draws from ancient myths around the globe. The cultural shift was criticized as a form of whitewashing—there are few enough Asian roles in pop culture that rewriting one for a white performer is insulting at best—but I also appreciate the way that director/co-screenwriter Scott Derrickson opens up the cultural currents of the film. And for balance, he also turns Wong (Benedict Wong), the loyal Chinese manservant of the comics, into a powerful, witty, and worldly philosopher-warrior for the big screen.
For all the psychedelic imagery, there is much familiar to this hero’s journey. Mads Mikkelson plays the former disciple now serving an interdimensional god named Dormammu by destroying Earth’s defenses in advance of an invasion (or whatever it is that gods do when they take over a new world). Strange is jolted out of self-interest to stand with Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), protégé of The Ancient One, and save the material world. Doctor Strange has all the strengths of a Marvel movie—a well-told story, a well-tuned sense of humor about itself, a personal drama to shape the hero’s journey—as well as all the weaknesses (conventions of a superhero origin tale are getting repetitive). What sets it apart is a creative imagination in its introduction of the supernatural in the MCU.
The magical sigils and portals are at once amorphous and physical and the sparks that sputter in the swirl of a magic portal are tactile, continuing to spit and burn after a portal closes, which gives natural grounding to the supernatural doings. The alternate dimensions are the closest the movies have come to bringing the surreal, phantasmagorical, acid-trip visions of artist and co-creator Steve Ditko to the screen. Toss in the origami folds in space out of Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) and you’ve got the most creative visual lightshow of the past couple of years swirling around the natural charisma of Cumberbatch’s performance. By the end of the film, Doctor Strange has earned its gravitas without tipping into self-serious pretentiousness or ridiculous camp. It’s a trip!
It earned an Oscar nomination for visual effects.
Also on Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video (in movie-only and movie + supplements editions), iTunes, GooglePlay, and other services. Availability may vary by service.
Doctor Strange [DVD]
Doctor Strange [Blu-ray]
Doctor Strange [Blu-ray + Blu-ray 3D]
There are no supplements to speak of on the DVD but Marvel likes to do it up on their Blu-ray releases. The disc is beautifully mastered with a powerful image and a muscular audio mix and it includes a five-part making-of documentary that features segments on the casting and characters, the costume and set design, the mystical martial arts choreography and style, and the composition and recording of the score. Like many of these kinds of extras, it has its share of self-congratulatory comments but mostly it is packed with great production footage and behind-the-scenes detail. There is also audio commentary by director Scott Derrickson, a seven-minute preview of “Marvel Studios: Phase 3” (which is really an elaborate, though quite entertaining, ad for their upcoming slate), over seven minutes of deleted and alternate scenes, a gag reel, and the comic short “Team Thor: Part 2” with Chris Hemsworth as the Norse God trying out life as a civilian, complete with roommate and manservant.