Don’t let the goatee fool you – this is no Iron Man.
Hands have long linked man to the divine. Their ability to create and restore, to develop civilization, have been seen as a blessed ability inherent in an instrument sent from above. During the revolutionary age in the physiological sciences at the advent of more modern surgery, the hands of surgeons became powerful symbols in everything from Rembrandt paintings to anatomy textbooks. Light shone upon them and onlookers gaped at them – there’s a reason Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam has the hands as the focal point rather than the face of God.
When neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) loses the precise use of his hands in a car accident, this relationship is broken. His ego, tied to his ability, is severed. The one god he believed in (himself) is powerless. He faces physical and spiritual impotency.
Minutes earlier he was razzing his colleagues about a Chuck Mangione tune before nimbly plucking a bullet from a brain. This is the same self-important careerist build-up and breakdown Marvel last gave us in its first foray into a cinematic universe, 2008’s Iron Man. Now, in Doctor Strange, we see how familiar symbols (both characters and their parts) have adapted and matured over the last near-decade.
For a film that so readily traffics in Asian imagery (from the tea-drinking to the Buddhist-inspired hand movements, or Kuji no in, used to cast spells) and is set in Nepal for its majority, it’s jarring that the cast only features one Asian character with a speaking role and another that serves as a body prop, first as a gag and then as a lesson. While Tilda Swinton’s performance as The Ancient One, the master Strange eventually seeks after giving up hope in Western medicine, is undeniably fun – mixing a tired, wizened tolerance for skepticism with a dry, spritely wit – the casting and rewriting of the Sorcerer Supreme as a Celtic woman feels counterintuitive and jarring.
A similar sensation is found in Cumberbatch’s performance, lifted from Robert Downey Jr. as much as Swinton’s character lifts from Asian culture. He’s snarky, quippy, and eventually goateed – treating everyone around him, including his love interest, like a second-class citizen until someone beats some sense into his spoiled head. This someone, unlike in the case of Tony Stark, is himself.
Strange’s obsession with work causes his car accident and his obsession with self-improvement causes his spiritual and moral recovery. He wants to be the best and if that means helping a few people along the way, so be it.
At a Nepalese training facility for sorcerers, guardians of Earth from interdimensionally mystic threats the Avengers aren’t quite equipped to see, Strange meets Wong (Benedict Wong) and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Wong is a stoic librarian who provides many of the film’s non-physical laughs when shutting down Cumberbatch’s snide pop culture riffing. Mordo, a more complex character, is the Good Cop of the sorcerer team. He plays by the rules – you get the feeling he’d read the interstellar star-eaters (in this film’s case, Dormammu, a malevolent face riddled with mirrored vertices like a futuristic Star Fox villain) their rights if they had any.
This raises interesting tensions between friendly characters that have become more common as Marvel has gotten more comfortable with its heroes. For less interesting tensions, we turn to the relationship/romance/professional exploitationship between Strange and his ex/colleague Christine Palmer (a brilliantly comic Rachel McAdams). Palmer and Strange dance the tired dance between the arrogant dick and the patient woman that is always there for him. Thankfully Palmer is also written as a grounded foil for Strange’s headfirst dive into mysticism, which provides lots of great reaction shot humor, but this is no great love story.
Rather, it’s a trippy tale of finding spirituality through one’s own abilities. The visuals cartwheel through space and time, throwing you into pools of madness only to dry you off with a wind tunnel which doesn’t quite have a Euclidean geometry. The world spins, or is manipulated by evil zealot and former Ancient One pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, perfectly pitched somewhere between reasonable Hannibal and supervillain), into a game board for its mystical demigods’ pleasures.
They use the environment as a weapon, a stage, or an escape route. Characters break the screen into multiple mirrored walls or shove entire sections of the frame away along with the cars they wished to avoid during the fights, making this the most visually ambitious superhero movie ever made. Realities are broken and time is rewound before a climactic conflict that is refreshingly clever and completely character-centric.
The parts and symbols may seem (sometimes problematically) familiar, but there’s a new magic here. The freedom to toy with form allows the Doctor Strange team, especially director Scott Derrickson and his visual staff, the ability to capture a unique tone in a genre that had previously been drifting towards sameness. More superheroes could stand as strong genre influences as sci-fi/fantasy comes across here. Usually it’s up to anthropologists to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange, but in this case I’ll call it a win for filmmaking.
Two final notes: Cumberbatch’s American accent and the film’s 3-D are superfluous but finely executed.