Strange Things Are Happening

A visual effects masterpiece, Doctor Strange imbues M.C. Escher, magical realism, and mirrored realities in order to bring spiritual mysticism into the Marvel slate. The twisting, bending, and winding of New York prevalent in trailers isn’t even the pay-off. Still to come is a Hong Kong battle, cleverly displayed in reverse, which lends this Marvel outing a stand-out, distinctive appearance.

The Marvel series struggles with identity. Premiere directors become crushed by a near decade of narrative weight, lending the series (or “universe”) a TV-like serialized continuity. Attempt to pry Thor and Captain America apart cinematically and it’s impossible. Tonality, color palettes, narrative form; they bleed into one another.

Doctor Strange isn’t free from those criticisms. Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) path is a typical hero’s journey, colliding even with Star Wars’ classical themes, or given the comic origins, Star Wars collided with Strange. Either way, for movie audiences, Strange echoes Luke Skywalker, absent the Jedi’s penchant for whiny outbursts. Strange is encapsulated by ego. Arguably too quickly, Strange is whisked away from his cocky stint as a neurosurgeon, broken down and desperate after an improbable car wreck.


This brings in needed international flavor as Strange seeks a cure for his broken nervous system. Changes occur not only in locale, but lore and culture. Controversy surrounding Tilda Swinton’s casting aside, she’s genuine and fierce in her mentor-like role, a Nepali Obi-Wan Kenobi with force. In comes the color, dressing Doctor Strange in vibrant, warm hues, lending the film a sense of identity years after Marvel began choking the saturation from their films. Then comes the magic, flinging heated sparks, flushing the screen with vibrancy. It’s gorgeous to look at it, and certain to be a hit in areas with a high hallucinogenic concentration.

Doctor Strange maintains energy through each consecutive special effects blowout

Strange’s arrogance plots much of the humor, some out of place, but still raucously entertaining. His natural resistance to time travel, multiverses, and general magical properties seems more for the audience. In a world visited by snake aliens, gods of thunder, and transforming hulks, disbelieving in Asian mysticism seems odd. Then again, maybe this American-born fantasy is reflecting a core bias against Eastern folklore.

Laughs downplay some of the absurdest touches to be safe, invoking a dab of pop culture and Strange’s pushy, living cape in order to ease viewers in. Guardians of the Galaxy did the same, but for a talking racoon and an emotive tree root. Again, Doctor Strange isn’t far from the core tenants of the series – or even broader fiction – yet its ability to absorb those hits and push enormous, captivating action gives it unique life.


The waiting game comes with pay off. Once outside of the exposition-laced (but adorable) training sequences and flashes to our own reality, Doctor Strange earns its freedom. Blasting moment after moment of incredible stimuli, Doctor Strange maintains energy through each consecutive special effects blowout.

Breathing time isn’t long. Set-up happens without a loss of pace, igniting yet another show-stopping treasure of total ingenuity. Yes, this is all computer processors cranked to their maximum to produce impossible images, unfathomable to conceive with any other method. However, Doctor Strange uses that seemingly infinite creative power to break reality, not create it. That’s what computerized imagery is there for: A perfect marriage of tech and storytelling, embodying the greatest possibilities of escapism.

When it seems as if Doctor Strange is out of ammo, there’s still more. Even the routine villain Kaecilus (Mads Mikkelsen) it turns out, isn’t so routine. Action spectacle keeps coming, the film infatuated with continually raising stakes, powers, and importantly, character. Derivative or not, Strange undergoes a strong central arc, and in doing so, still maintains his personality. He’s an egoist, but not Tony Stark. Intelligent, but not Bruce Banner. Powerful, but not Thor. Strange fits. We need him in this universe.

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Enabled by visual effects progression and delighting in creating the impossible, Doctor Strange is familiar, but ultimately unique.

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