So finally I’m getting around to my spoiler review of Doctor Strange. I haven’t seen it again since writing the non-spoiler review, so there isn’t a ton of new insight into it. However, we may go to see it in 3D sooner or later, and if we do that I will at least update whether or not the 3D experience is any good.
For now, let’s just talk about Doctor Strange, what stands out about it, what doesn’t work so well, and how this will affect the MCU moving forward.
Before moving into spoilers I should probably address whether or not there is a need to see it before the next Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which is still 2½ weeks away). The answer to that question is: I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. Though there are some very global events in the movie, I don’t think S.H.I.E.L.D. will really have to get involved in any of them. If there is any sort of tie-in (beyond the thematic tie-in of Ghost Rider and the Darkhold) I think it will be closer to the Ant-Man tie-in (a passing reference to the weird things going on around the world) than to the Avengers: Age of Ultron tie-in (which showed clips from the movie in the form of news footage). I could be wrong on this, but I (obviously!) don’t think so. But if you’re worried, just see the movie already. It’s amazing and you won’t regret it. Besides, you’ve got 2½ weeks to do it!
With that out of the way, let’s dive into the movie.
The first and most important aspect of the movie to discuss is the title character, Dr. Stephen Strange. As we know from the comics, Strange is a very Tony Stark-like character: brilliant, arrogant, successful, wealthy, at the head of his field… you get the idea. That was certainly a concern coming into the movie: would this just be a rehash of Iron Man with Dr. Strange as nothing more than “Tony Stark, M.D.”? The answer, thankfully, is a resounding “NO,” as Strange does manage to distinguish himself from his fellow “goateed do-gooder” (my words, not theirs). Though Strange also enjoys fast cars, fancy watches, and even a grand piano (did anyone else have Iron Man 2 flashbacks in that sequence?), he does not appear to enjoy those things nearly as much as Tony Stark does. In fact, my first thought after the movie was something Robbie Reyes said about his “Tio” in the last episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “he worked so hard to buy this sweet car, and now he’s too busy to enjoy it.”
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Strange also undergoes a much greater transformation over the course of this movie than Tony Stark underwent in his first two. Tony was still very arrogant and full of himself, even at the end of Iron Man 2, and still had complete confidence in his mastery of technology. Strange, on the other hand, loses his ability to practice medicine within 30 minutes and with it all of his arrogance and self-confidence. By the end of the movie he must acknowledge just how little he truly knows about the world and embrace the mystical side. I don’t say this to put down the Iron Man series but rather to show just how complete of a character arc Dr. Strange has in his first movie.
The character of Stephen Strange is amazing in this movie. At the beginning of the movie you can’t help disliking him for his level of self-interest. At the same time, you can’t help sympathizing with him at the lost of function in his hands and his desire to try everything available to regain the ability perform complex and dangerous surgeries. You also see where he is coming from when he first encounters magic and treats it skeptically. After all, we are coming to this movie from that same perspective after 13 previous movies treated magic as (at most) science that we do not understand. When the Ancient One starts showing Strange just how little he knows about the universe—and even giving him a nickel tour of the “multiverse”—we feel the same shock as he does. This is something that was only barely hinted at in Ant-Man with the Quantum Realm, after all! Then when Strange starts delving deeper into the Mystic Arts, the transformation from arrogant surgeon to inquisitive sorcerer becomes clear. But the best scene for his character is easily at the very end when he initiates a time loop with himself and Dormammu in which Dormammu would kill him repeatedly for eternity and the Earth would be spared. That is certainly not the action of an arrogant surgeon whose only interest is his own advancement.
The second-most important character in the movie is actually not the villain, Kaecilius, or the Ancient One, or Wong, or even Christine Palmer (the love interest). It is actually Mordo, who is an advanced student of the Ancient One who serves as both mentor and friend to Dr. Strange. I really like the relationship between them, particularly with the contrast between Strange’s willingness to bend the rules and Mordo’s strict adherence to them. When they discover that the Ancient One was greatly prolonging her life by tapping into energy from the Dark Dimension, Mordo’s feelings of devastation and betrayal are quite palpable. Though he continues to help Strange at that moment, and though he joins Strange in stopping Kaecilius in Hong Kong, it is still quite clear from their interaction in the New York Sanctum that Mordo will not forgive the Ancient One for deceiving them and using forbidden rites for (in his views) personal gain.
This is why I think that Mordo is so important in this movie. Kaecilius may be the villain for Doctor Strange, but Mordo is going to be a much greater antagonist to Strange in his future movies—and perhaps for the entire MCU—than Kaecilius was. And this movie lays out exactly why Mordo does not see eye-to-eye with Strange and gives him a very powerful and logical motivation for what he will do in the future. Not only that, but the relationship between him and Strange shown in this movie will make the conflict all the more personal for Strange when he needs to fight his former friend and sparring partner to save the world (or at least the world’s sorcerers).
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As I said, Kaecilius is not the most exciting of villains, though the character design is really cool. When the movie begins he has already turned against the Ancient One and is already serving Dormammu. He does tell Strange his motivation for his actions—he is serving Dormammu because he believes that Dormammu will grant everyone on Earth “eternal life”—but he never explains why “eternal life” under Dormammu is something he wants. Did he turn to Dormammu because the Ancient One could not bring his family back and he thought Dormammu could? Did he turn to Dormammu because he wanted the entire world to feel his pain? I don’t think it’s the latter, but it’s never exactly stated. Ultimately, Kaecilius and the motivation behind his motivation is not explored at all in this movie, and that is perhaps its greatest flaw. However, having said that I do not see it as a particularly damaging flaw (if that’s possible) because I do not see Kaecilius’ story as being nearly as important to the movie and franchise as that of Mordo.
Christine’s role in this movie is also greatly reduced from what we were expecting (after all, these movies are supposed to have a love interest, aren’t they?), but that’s not exactly a bad thing. Even though she doesn’t appear much, she does have some important moments, such as keeping Strange alive while he battles the zealot on the Astral Plane. She also gives Strange his motivation to go out and fight after the Ancient One’s Death. I don’t know if she will come back for the (inevitable) sequel, but it would not surprise me in the least if she does.
There were a lot of complaints about the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One (who is an old Asian man in the comics), but I really liked her portrayal of the character. She was mysterious and strange, but also very human. The revelation that she had greatly prolonged her life by tapping into energy from the Dark Dimension is a key part of Mordo’s character arc, but it is also handled very well as part of the Ancient One’s arc. Though we don’t see too much of her conflict over the use of the forbidden rite, there is just enough in there for us to see that she is conflicted over it; the revelation actually puts her earlier words to Kaecilius (that calling on Dormammu would only cause grief) into a completely new light—she was speaking from experience. Her conversation with Strange as she was dying was a great character moment, particularly with regard to her conflicted feelings about not just the prolonged life but also the reason for it.
While I can sympathize with those who thought they should have cast an Asian in the role, I can also see why they went with Tilda Swinton in the role. Besides, considering that the Ancient One in the comics is one of the 3-or-so Asian stereotypes in media, I’m not going to get upset with them for not wanting to promote a stereotype!
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A few final notes. First, the visuals in this movie are absolutely breathtaking. I love the sequence with Strange flying through dimensions as well as the scene in the Dark Dimension. The fight sequences combine innovative fighting techniques and unusual visuals in an awesome way so that they really stand out from all the other fight sequences we’ve seen in recent comic book movies. However, the fight sequences are pretty packed with action, so they are not entirely clear as far as what’s going on. Some people enjoy that kind of thing, but I am not one of them. The humor in the movie is really good for the most part. There are some moments when they’re really pushing it, but there are plenty of places where the humor flows very naturally, like Mordo’s: “The wifi password. We’re not savages.”
Finally, the two post-credit scenes do a good job of setting up where the two main characters will appear next. We can expect Doctor Strange to show up at some point in Thor: Ragnarok to help Thor and Loki find Odin (something that was rumored a while back). We can then expect Mordo to return as a villain eventually, probably in the next Doctor Strange movie.
Overall, Doctor Strange is an excellent addition to the MCU and does a good job of introducing magic to the wider MCU. Magic in this case is approached as an extension of what we have seen before, particularly with the exploration of Darkforce on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, but it is not given more of a scientific explanation than that. I can’t wait to see what this will mean for the MCU moving forward!
What did you think of Doctor Strange? Where do you want Mordo to appear next? Let me know in the comments!