If superhero films have begun to feel overdone by their reuse of the same stories, full of beams to the sky and forgettable villains, then Marvel’s newest installment in its ever-expanding cinematic universe is the new life fans have been looking for. Doctor Strange dazzles and enthralls in its psychedelic and city-bending sequences, while providing a story accessible for even the least-informed comic book fans. Even as Marvel has continued to add new filmmakers to its bullpen and included characters as wide-reaching as Ant-Man, Rocket Raccoon and Vision, there is a consistent formula in all of its movies. There are the quips and the awkward pauses that punctuate character dialogue.
Star Wars is referenced in the loss of a character’s arm, Stan Lee has consistent cameo’s and audiences have gotten used to waiting after the credits for extra scenes. These scenes usually provide only the slightest hint of a tease, never quite reaching the simple satisfaction of The Avengers’ shawarma scene. For an individual movie, the details work, but after 14 films, it begins to feel as though Marvel should start looking for new tricks. Thankfully, Doctor Strange is chock full of new ideas.
The introduction of Scarlet Witch after the credits of Captain America: The Winter Soldier brought magic into the universe and, in this film, the titular doctor runs with it. There is teleportation and time manipulation. Cities bend in ways that would make fans of Inception happy. Dimensions are shifted and magical relics are collected. When it comes to its mystical elements, Doctor Strange does not skimp on any content. The story tells of Doctor Stephen Strange, a brilliant neurosurgeon who knows just how brilliant he is, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch. He turns down cases that could ruin his successful record, humiliates co-workers who are not on his level of expertise and acts like Iron Man’s Tony Stark.
His penchant for attempted humor calls back to Robert Downey Jr.’s wisecracking in previous Marvel films. Strange even gets a goatee later in the movie. As a result of Doctor Strange’s arrogance, he crashes his car, careening off the side of a road and crushing his hands in the process. With the prospect of never being able to perform surgery again, the doctor searches for any kind of treatment, known or experimental, ending up at the door of The Ancient One, a bald monk played by Tilda Swinton. Her character is as bizarre as any description could sound. Swinton is accompanied by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Karl Mordo.
These two characters and all the disciples surrounding them don colorful robes and practice martial art forms that fit right into the narrative of a Nepalese monastery where the protagonist must rediscover him or herself before gaining new powers. The masters there teach of a darkness that wishes to consume all worlds, defended only by their ancient order. For all of its intensity, Doctor Strange pleases by not taking anything too seriously. Mordo gives Strange the monastery’s Wi-Fi password and Strange later has an encounter with Wong, the librarian, who provides a humorous musical reference.
As the doctor jokes around, trying to crack a smile on the serious faces of his fellow students, it acts as a recognition that at the end of the day, this is still a movie based on a comic book—it is supposed to be fun. Doctor Strange is an origin story, creating a new character with all the jargon and comic references that come along. Still, everything is understandable to new audiences. Once the credits roll, a phrase, “The Eye of Agamotto,” enters the lexicon of casual viewers, no longer belonging only to comic fans.
The movie excels most in its innovation. One particular sequence, involving the bending of New York City into a series of platforms and buildings folding into themselves, is remarkably dazzling, but the beauty does not stop there. The mystics cast magic gorgeously, with geometrical patterns acting as the representation of multidimensional powers. As time is dilated, repeated and reversed, the imagery is further expanded. A lightning bolt slowly cracks the sky, while raindrops seem to hang in the air.
This visual creativity is even reflected in the score, with the inclusion of a harpsichord, an instrument not usually found in a superhero soundtrack. The whole experience begs to be watched in IMAX, 3D or both, and is one of few movies that really deserves that treatment. With all this innovation, it is questionable how well the movie may hold up over time and against future Marvel releases. Guardians of the Galaxy, beloved and acclaimed, was strongly dependent on its humor and repeated viewings diminish its apparent quality. The Avengers was an opportunity to see individual franchises united under one umbrella, but soon, that lost its feeling of uniqueness.
Meanwhile, The Winter Soldier works outside of the superhero genre as an actual film, providing new information with every viewing, while having real depth. When the effects in Doctor Strange eventually repeat in other films, or the technology that brought it about becomes outdated, it is unclear whether or not it will maintain its unique quality.
Doctor Strange has real character development and self-confrontation. There are majestic visuals and the satisfaction of Cumberbatch’s depth of portrayal. The film is one of the most unique superhero flicks to come, giving hope that if the superhero cinematic trend continues, there is still more to be seen.