“The Avengers protect the world from physical danger. We save it from more mystical threats.” – Wong, a librarian.
Doctor Strange is the perfect Marvel movie, perfectly cast with Benedict Cumberbatch as a physically injured surgeon who goes to Nepal searching to be healed and is taught magic instead.
One sentence and you have the origin story encapsulated.
Now, I could mention the Cloak of Levitation, the Eye of Agamotto (an amulet for fighting in the Dark Dimension) or Clea and the fact that Mephisto is a class 2 demon who figures prominently in the Infinity War, but that would be getting a bit ahead of it all. Doctor Stephen Vincent Strange – created by artist Steve Ditko in 1963 as part Chandu, part DC Comics’ Dr. Fate, with a slight nod to Vincent Price and based on an earlier Marvel character, Dr. Droom (not to be confused with Doctor Doom, the ruler of Latveria) – was an amalgamated hero that had been arrogant and materialistic (a la Tony Stark) and suffered a great loss (in a similar vein as the Silver Surfer or Matt Murdock) only to have a spiritual awakening that positions him as heir to the title Sorcerer Supreme.
In real life, the character became associated with hallucinogens, thanks in part to flyers for Ken Kesey’s Trips Festival which called its initial performance “A Tribute to Dr. Strange” in 1966.
As the comic book progressed, artist Gene Colan continued the already established drug connotations with acid-induced head-swirling and Escher-enveloped landscapes through various circle-within-circles dimensions, which is why Stan Lee’s appearance in the film has him reading Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception as sidewalks and skyscrapers bend and twist a la the folding frames found in Inception.
Featuring an A-list cast, Doctor Strange follows a former student (Mads Mikkelsen) who steals the page from a sacred text to bring forth Dormammu, the ruler of the Dark Dimension. Who’s gonna stop him? The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) is a mystic sage who has trained the majority of sorcerers operating on Earth, including Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a conflicted student at odds with other magicians, and the aforementioned Wong (played by Benedict Wong), who’s the guardian of Manhattan’s sanctorum which falls on the fault line of Dormammu’s realm.
Binding these various planes of existence is Stephen Strange, who relies on powers of teleportation, time-loop mastery and an ability to shape reality into 3D LSD visuals enough to ruin a perfectly splendid lunch.
Another thing director Scott Derrickson (the guy responsible for the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, ugh!) has done is to place his film in context to the chronology of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by mentioning events that transpired in the first Iron Man movie and establishing that Strange’s journey to Kathmandu occurred after the Avengers’ battle in NYC.
Which not only goes to great lengths positioning Doctor Strange as one of the earliest entries in their “Universe” but confirms that whereas it looks as though it has taken 14 films for Marvel to acknowledge magic, it was confirmed all along!
Then, there are those eye-rolling moments that seep through to prove that, though associated with hallucinogens, Stephen Strange is rather unhip, listening to the likes of Chuck Mangione! And though in the upper echelon of Marvel’s “big brains,” i.e. Reed Richards or Hank Pym, Strange is overheard using the non-word “irregardless”!
The Doctor Strange comic was an odd bird, more off-kilter chess moves than knock-down brawl. He thought while the Hulk smashed! He sees through time and space, while Cyclops of the X-Men can’t see without wrecking his surroundings. One of but a handful of Marvel characters that has a justification for wearing a cape, along with Thor and The Watcher, who wear them for appearance sake.
Doctor Strange, the movie, contributes to the forthcoming Avengers: Infinity War by way of explaining how characters who cannot fly through space will end up on Thanos’ asteroid! Little by little, each of these Marvel movies has provided a sacrifice bunt to move the story forward. And we’re almost there.