One of the fun things about the ongoing success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is how it begins to open up new corners of itself that probably never would have gotten standalone movie treatment otherwise. Such is the case with Doctor Strange, an introduction to the mystic side of the MCU. Initially developed as a way to cash in on the psychedelic movement of the late 1960s, Doctor Strange has never been a tentpole title for Marvel, even though the Sorcerer Supreme himself has long haunted Marvel pages. But the Marvel Universe would feel incomplete without him, his gallery of bizarre foes and his array of weird spells. And now, after his introduction on the big screen, the MCU would feel like a lesser thing without him, too.
The story begins in Marvel Manhattan, where Stephen Strange enjoys life as a wealthy, brilliant and acclaimed neurosurgeon. He is also an arrogant ass entirely too high on his own ego, so when a car crash severely injures his hands and ends his medical career, he falls apart emotionally and mentally. Desperate for any kind of remedy, he hears of a mystic sanctuary in Nepal where he thinks he might learn the skills to heal himself. But when he gets there, he realizes he has stepped into a world much, much bigger than what he expected…one where his quest to restore his hands pales before far more important reasons to master the supernatural arts. Strange proves a quick study and soon not only unlocks his sorcerous potential, but joins a struggle to help his teacher, the Ancient One, protect three sanctuaries on Earth from those who would destroy them and open the planet to threats from other dimensions. But the Ancient One hasn’t been exactly honest with Strange or her other disciples. In a world where reality itself is malleable and contradictory, so too are the moral imperatives of those who claim mastery over the mystic arts. And nobody knows that better than Doctor Strange.
If all that feels a little oblique, then congratulations, because Doctor Strange is nothing, if not oblique. Strange has never truly been represented as a superhero, just the weird guy who works alongside superheroes, usually dealing with problems costumed crimefighters either wouldn’t understand or would consider way beyond their pay grade. Strange’s magic is never truly explained in detail, nor are the brain-warping dimensions he visits as he makes his rounds. To a certain degree, Doctor Strange is always just a little inaccessible to us, and that is no different on the screen.
The movie does a fine job of boosting this unease with how it represents magic in action. Sure, we have grown accustomed to eye-popping VFX these days, and especially so 13 movies into the greatest superhero film franchise of all time. And yet, even among those expectations and familiarity with convention, Doctor Strange hits us with such a bewildering array of spellfire mandalas and reality-bending set pieces that very soon we are placed in the exact same place that the comic’s readers were in its earliest pages: wondering what the hell is going on. And this is a good thing. Sequences like the extraordinary mirror dimension chase in the movie’s second act isn’t just a visual tour de force. It’s a genre-shattering action scene that makes us believe that in this story, literally any damned thing is possible, and trying to anticipate what’s next is a futile gesture. For once, we are as much in the dark as our hero is, and it’s a strangely liberating experience.
Marvel excels at bringing us qualified heroes and villains, and it does so again here. Stephen Strange is an unlikeable jerk who openly challenges us to feel sorry for him, even after his near-fatal car accident, even after his humiliating non-recovery, even after he alienates himself from every last vestige of his former life. When he finally comes to awaken to his mystic potential, there he is again, reading books he ought not to read, snarking off to folks he ought to be respecting, and calling his own shots way before he’s paid his dues. Doctor Strange is the first origin story in a while, at this point in the MCU continuity, and this time around, we revel less in Strange’s development of super powers and more in his slow shedding of his deep unlikeability. By the time it falls to Strange to step up and save this world and every other one, you almost hope he succeeds mainly because you know that if he doesn’t, he’s certainly not going to apologize over it.
Where this gets interesting is when Strange’s character flaws become his greatest strength, showing that maybe he had what it takes to be this story’s kind of hero all along. When we see the inevitable rift between The Ancient One and her disciples because of her inability to play by the rules she herself set for them, it is Strange who most understands, because he knows he’s the one who would be the most likely to do the same, only playing by the rules that aren’t worth breaking.
But the moment of truth comes during the movie’s unexpected finale, when he must face his arch-nemesis Dormammu, a godlike foe from another dimension whose magic ability far outstrips Doctor Strange’s own. For all of his arrogance and self-styled supremacy, Strange is smart enough to know when he can’t prevail by conventional means, and instead proves that he really is as brilliant as he thinks he is by trapping Dormammu in a riposte against which there can be no defense. All it takes is Strange’s endless suffering. And as he gladly endures it, he proves that he might be a jerk. He might be a rookie. He might be the guy you want on your side, but not on your team. But he is also a hero. Just a strange one.