RECAP: Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange (2016): Scott Derrickson

After trying out more famous actors (Robert Downey, Jr.) and more famous characters (Hulk, Thor, Captain America), Marvel moved into left field, throwing lesser-knowns into (hopefully) major franchises (Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy) and less-statured characters (Ant-Man).

That was a big hit. Of course, Doctor Strange was already on the table, but surely the success of Guardians helped executives breathe sighs of relief. Casting the most recognizable actor face of genius, or face of acting genius, no, guy who plays geniuses, Benedict Cumberbatch, eased tensions as well.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: The world’s greatest surgeon permanently injures his hands, and then he becomes the world’s greatest wizard.

Hero (6/10)

Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the world’s greatest neurosurgeon. You don’t need me to tell you. Let Strange tell you: “Work I’m doing is going to save thousands in the years to come.” He’s a guy who co-invented a neurosurgery technique while often forgetting the “co-” part.

Humility not his strong suit, Strange believes his mastery of one skill bleeds into others. Take, for example, driving. On his way to an important gala, dolled up in black tie and five-figure watch, Strange drives his sleek sports car on winding two-lane roads outside of New York City. He takes a call and looks at some neural scans. All while weaving across the double yellow line.

Next thing he knows, his car is flipping a dozen times on its way from road to river. Wheeled into his own hospital, all the doctor’s horses and all the doctor’s men couldn’t put Strange’s hands back together again.

Left with an incurable quiver to his hands, Strange must find a cure or lose his ability to operate. Incapable of saving money, he spends his last dime trying the techniques of Western medicine.

They fail him. Desperate, Strange visits a guy named Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) to find out how he cured incurable nerve damage. “Run to Degoba,” Pangborn says. Kidding. He says he learned to train his mind to heal his body in Kamar-Taj, high in the Himalayas, where oxygen depravation aids craziness.

Strange heads there and is quickly humbled by a teacher smarter and funnier than he, The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Then there’s training. Strange learns quickly because he has a photographic memory. “It’s how I got an M.D. and a Ph.D. at the same time,” he says.

The Ancient One runs a psuedo-military organization that Strange rises through swiftly. From a nobody on their doorstep, Strange becomes the equivalent of third-in-line in a few months, possibly weeks. Imagine if Eisenhower had started World War Two as a private and ended as Supreme Allied Commander.

Some of Strange’s advancements are coincidental. He’s appointed new head of New York’s portal because he watches the old one die. Imagine appointing someone at Dunkirk to lead the British Expeditionary Force.

Strange comes upon a cloak of levitation and the Amulet of Agamotto, the latter by borrowing it to do some coding.

Strange proves himself fearless in his new roles. He fights Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a fallen student of The Ancient One and one of the best fighters in the world, who broke with her school to help aid the arrival of the Dark Dimension, with little training and fewer reservations. Later, Strange enters the Dark Dimension without a care for its consequences.

Cumberbatch continues his string of genius-playing roles. The guy’s practically type cast at this point, a fact he lampooned during his Saturday Night Live hosting stint: Alan Turing, Sherlock Holmes, Julian Assange, genetically enhanced Star Trek villain Khan, and now Stephen Strange.

He’s believable as a self-absorbed, socially averse genius because it’s about all we’ve seen from him. Cumby even gets the comedy right. I don’t know if Cumberbatch is funny (my guess is only accidentally), but give him the right material and he’ll shine.

Villain (6/10)

Exploder favorite Mads Mikkelsen dons sallow robes to play Kaecilius, a fallen former student of The Ancient One’s.

Kaecilius opens the film by opening a portal into The Ancient One’s headquarters. He’s there to steal a book. Actually, a page from a book locked up in her private library. He steals the pages, duh, cuz otherwise no movie.

Kaecilius desires to open a portal to the Dark Dimension, where time doesn’t exist and all mortal humans will become immortal. Sounds much like Heaven to Kaecilius, but to most other folks it sounds like Hell. It’s the DARK Dimension.

After an exciting opening action sequence, in which Kaecilius and his followers flit through dimensional portals they’ve opened, the villain disappears for awhile as we meet Dr. Strange. Kaecilius shows up again inside a church, where he starts the spells that will open the Dark Dimension.

Mikkelsen, as I’ve stated before, is terrific. His eyes are set as if God intended him to play villains, because a villainous glare is his default look. In Doctor Strange he’s acquired black, charring makeup surrounding his eyes, I suppose a side effect from dimensional experimentation. The eyes look rough, and they distract from the ponytail.

Kaecilius runs into Dr. Strange in the New York portal chamber. He doesn’t know Strange yet, so he doesn’t take him seriously. Kaecilius wins the fight, of course, because he’s the best non-bald magical warrior in Earth’s dimension.

Kaecilius leads a few acolytes from one portal to another, destroying them with relative ease. It’s clear that The Ancient One’s defenses are weak. If you thought the Maginot Line was bad, have I got a new defense plan for you! Kaecilius kills the Kamar-Taj librarian in the first scene. He kills the next librarian in the climactic battle. In between he kills the guardians of all three portals.

Mikkelsen treats his role with business-like acumen. Kaecilius is a man on a mission, but one he expects to fulfill. He doesn’t kill for joy–his entire reasoning is to make humans immortal–but if someone gets in his way…. This is not a sadist villain, but one with goals.

Action/Effects (10/10)


What more needs saying? I watched Doctor Strange in IMAX 3D. Some 3D films are not worth the added price. Doctor Strange is one of the best 3D films in years, maybe ever.

Doctor Strange is an odd movie to act. Many of the weapons are orange spirograph patterns that must be drawn by making your arms resemble clock hands. They should have hired mimes as stunt actors. I’m sure they would have nailed it.

The action kicks off the movie as Kaecilius robs key pages from The Ancient One’s secret knowledge stash. From the Nepalese mountains Kaecilius runs through a door and walks onto London’s streets.

The Ancient One, fighting alone, follows. We don’t understand yet what’s going on, so it’s best to sit back and enjoy the creativity at work.

The Ancient One plops them in the Mirror Dimension, where magic has no power in the real world. Bobbies walk their beats and black cabs crawl knowing nothing of the fight around them.

Kaecilius and his acolytes occupy a quiet, gray street in London. They twist the buildings like a bike lock while avoiding The Ancient One’s magic hand shields. To escape, Kaecilius opens a portal into a park.

Later, when Kaecilius attacks the New York sanctum, all Manhattan becomes his play thing. Strange and Mordo attempt to escape through portals. Kaecilius doesn’t abide. He starts shape-shifting the city to force his opponents to miss their portal holes.

On the street or on the side of a building, Kaecilius prevents them from escaping. Eventually, Manhattan is repeated and refracted like a kaleidoscope. The camera moves backward to capture cubes of Manhattan, rivers turning 90 degrees on themselves. It’s business as usual for the drivers and pedestrians of New York, for whom this world-bending is nonexistent.

Kaecilius can bend the world in the Mirror Dimension and move Strange like a marble in a labyrinth. Skycrapers rend apart, a soon Mordo and Strange are falling amongst blocks of Manhattan, the loudest sound STILL the honking of yellow cabs.

When he first arrives in Kamar-Taj, Strange takes a joyless ride through dozens of dimensions, through the trippiest hallucination this side of 2001. He falls through tunnels and into his own eye. A hundred baby hands envelop him. He floats through the horror dimensions filled with “malice and hunger.”

It’s a trippy sequence meant to freak out you and Strange  more than it is meant to make you think, a la 2001. Industrial Light & Magic handled the New York and Hong Kong effects with aplomb.

Sidekicks (5/8)

Tilda Swinton plays a bald woman thousands of years old. She’s great. Who else could pull this off? OK, a lot of people. But there’s only one Tilda, and we love her for that.

The Ancient One is a Celtic sorcerer, the Sorcerer Supreme, living the past few centuries in Nepal, running a school training inter-dimension warriors while maintaining wi-fi connections high in the mountains.

Strange first meets The Ancient One after he’s spent his last dollar seeking her. She knows who he is, a fact that barely registers to the desperate Strange. Strange is a man accustommed to browbeating folks with his genius, but The Ancient One has seen his kind coming a mile away. She asks Strange, more or less, when you heal a body, do you heal the body or do the cells do that?

The Ancient One enjoys tormenting Strange, making her an audience conduit. She knows the world no longer accepts her form of wisdom, so she seems to enjoy ridiculing away those commonly held modern beliefs. After showing Strange the secrets of the multiverse, she throws him from Kamar-Taj.

Oh, and she’s a great fighter. In the opening scene she fends of Kaecilius and his band of merry thieves.

In the mold of Morpheus, The Ancient One is as classic a mentor as a character can get. “Thoughts shape reality,” she says, as Strange looks upon his hand that is growing hands on each finger ad infinitum. “Have you seen that before in a gift shop?”

“We never lose our demons, we only learn to live above them.”

Henchmen (0/8)

Keacilius seeks to open a direct line to the Dark Dimension, a timeless world run by Dormammu, the disembodied entity gobbling universes swiftly and hungry for Earth’s.

Dormammu is forced into a bargain with Strange to save himself from time, a thing missing from his universe. Metaphysics aside, Dormammu isn’t so scary.

First, the name. Try saying “Dormammu” with fear in your voice. Try again, this time without laughing. Yeah, it can’t be done. Now try its name again, making your voice deeper and deeper each time. It’s impossible to fear a character named “Dormammu.”

Which is probably why Strange isn’t worried when given a chance to confront him. (Cumberbatch understands the comedy of the scene.) “DorMAmmu,” Strange says, repeating scene after scene that ends in Strange’s death.

Dormammu finds that he dislikes time. Like a lot. He treats time like a spider dangled before his face. Get it away! Ew.

Kaecilius’s henchmen are barely seen and never heard. Seriously, I don’t think they speak a word. They’re fodder for Dr. Strange to practice his magical fighting skills.

Stunts (1/6)

Hard to tell what’s a stunt and what’s an effect in Doctor Strange.

Climax (6/6)

With only the Hong Kong sanctum standing in Dormammu’s way, Strange and Mordo know where next to find Kaecilius. They walk through the gate to find the sanctum…destroyed.

Yeah, Dormammu’s already getting his grubby mitts on our planet, a nebula of energy spreading through Hong Kong’s streets like post-handover communist factions.

But we forgot that Strange wears the time pendant. He uses that to undo many of the attack’s effects. And here’s where imagination runs wild.

Kaecilius and his crew are somehow unaffected by Strange’s rewinding of time. Strange, Mordo, and the resurrected Wong oppose Kaecilius and two other nameless, voiceless supporters in Hong Kong’s uncrumbling streets.

I loved this fight. How often have countless heroes and villains lain waste to a city with nary a voice against it? Many times. Doctor Strange offers us a fight while a city uncollapses.

Fighters dodge uncrashing cars. One Kaecilius acolyte dodges the reassembling bamboo poles of Chinese scaffolding while fighting Mordo, who can bound through the air with his boots. Another is trapped inside an aquarium that unshatters.

Kaecilius is hit hard, knocking him dizzy and into a wall as it stitches itself back together. Even in 2016 we saw a supervillain meld a man with a wall (Apocalypse), but watching a wall assemble around Kaecilius marked a triumph in inventive fight sequences.

Mid-fight, Strange realizes that Dormammu’s dimension/universe is immune to time. It doesn’t exist there. Strange hatches an idea, levitating into Dormammu’s reality.

It’s a weird one. All the colors of the rainbow infect hundreds of worlds. Dormammu, a Pink Floyd fan, lives at the center as a disembodied head of wavy skin and purple eyes. on second thought, this sounds more like a Prince-verse than a Floyd-verse.

Strange manipulates his green time thing, turning the knobs to Loop Mode. Agamotto’s user interface leaves much to be desired, but Strange seems to understand it.

He calls out to Dormammu. “I’ve come to bargain with you,” Strange says. Dormammu doesn’t bargain; he kills. Dr. Strange dies, but his loop resurrects him time and again. It’s fun for Strange, wretched for Dormammu.

We watch several journeys of Strange to the face of Dormammu. He knows his deaths will be painful, and each time they are, but Dormammu doesn’t enjoy time, brought to your dimension by the new Rolex Agamotto 5000.

Strange offers Dormammu a simple choice: leave his world alone and he will break the time loop. Also, take Kaecilius away.

Dormammu agrees and Strange returns to Earth. “Your not going to like it,” Strange says to Kaecilius of the Dark Dimension. They were jonesing for it, they just didn’t know they were Jim Jonesing.

Jokes (3/4)

Doctor Strange makes no bones of its silliness. Strange meets the new Kamar-Taj librarian, Wong. “Just Wong?” Strange asks. “Like Adele?” Wong’s face is boulder stern. “Aristotle, Drake, Bonoooo…”

The Ancient One is quite funny, and some of her best lines are detailed above.

“People used to think I was funny.” “Did they work for you?”

Setting (2/4)

Kamar-Taj is a spacious, airy compound of red brick in Tibet. Oh, sorry, not Tibet? Not the traditonal home of Theravadda Buddhism?

No, Kamar-Taj is in Nepal. The Chinese censors have no qualms with Nepal. Kamar-Taj seems like a nice place. Rents are low, probably, or perhaps The Ancient One’s school has paid off its mortgage by now, making it able to afford the high ceilings in the chamber with the Agamotto charm.

It needs to save money, because its three sanctums (sancta?) are plopped in expensive neighborhoods in London, New York, and Hong Kong, three of the most expensive real estate markets on Earth.

Odd, isn’t it, that these protective houses are best suited for cities with strong associations to the British Empire. When I think of mystic, magical societies, I think first of Britain. Don’t you?

Commentary (0/2)

Some things only magic can heal. That, and there are more worlds than this.

Offensiveness (-2/-2)

Doctor Strange took plenty of flack for whitewashing its characters. The Ancient One, comically, is a man named Kaluu who grew up amongst the Himalaya peaks. Cinematically, it’s Tilda Swinton.

I wonder if casting The Ancient One as an old Asian man would have caused a different furor, in which people castigate the film for succumbing to the stereotype of wise, old Asian man.

I don’t know, but at least that would keep with the comics, Marvel Cinematic Universe’s ur-texts.

Mordo, on the other hand, was a non-vampiric Transylvanian nobleman. In the movie he’s Ejiofor. That’s overlooked in the furor surrounding Swinton.

Seems like Marvel traded one non-white role for another. The trade was not equal. Mordo is some guy, The Ancient One is the ancient one, the best and oldest of all the world’s wizards.

If Marvel wanted to cast Swinton, why not set the tale in Scotland? If they wanted to set Kamar-Taj in the Himalayas, why not make The Ancient One Nepalese? Mixing the two doesn’t work.


  • “Strange” is too on the nose, isn’t it?
  • I bet it was funny to see Doctor Strange run into the hospital wearing a cape.

Summary (41/68): 60%

The only Marvel movie to deal with straight up magic, Doctor Strange uses older tropes from MCU movies to ground viewers in a profoundly weird film.

Cumberbatch is his usual professional self, game to take anything seriously, be it a Sherlock-delivered Shakespearean monologue or a scene in which his character’s astral plane self is covered with replicating baby hands.

I’m not sure if Cumberbatch is a funny person, but he can act like one in the more ridiculous scenes. Marvel understands that their movies are “comic” book movies, enlightening them when other series (cough DC cough) go dark. Another hit for Marvel.