Talking Movies [Multiverse Madness]: Doctor Strange

In September 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen thanks to the concept of the multiverse, an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to co-exist and interact. Marvel Comics would also adopt this concept and, to celebrate the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Raimi, 2022) this month, I’m both celebrating the Master of the Mystic Arts and exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) equivalent of the multiverse every Sunday of May.

Released: 4 November 2016
Director: Scott Derrickson
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $165 to 236.6 million
Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong, and Tilda Swinton

The Plot:
Doctor Stephen Strange’s (Cumberbatch) life is a celebrated neurosurgeon is shattered after a car accident robs him of the use of his hands. When traditional medicine fails him, he looks for healing, and hope, under the tutelage of the enigmatic Ancient One (Swinton). Arrogantly mastering spells and magics in a short space of time, Dr. Strange is forced to choose between his life of fortune and status and defending the world from the dark forces rogue sorcerer Kaecilius (Mikkelsen) seeks to unleash.

The Background:
The creation of legendary artist Steve Ditko, Dr. Strange started out as a five-page pitch prior to his debut in the pages of Strange Tales and was known for his elaborate spells and quirks and bizarre adventures. Dr. Strange is renowned as one of Marvel’s most pivotal figureheads, and actually has quite the storied history with adaptation. Like a number of Marvel superheroes, the Master of the Mystic Arts first flirted with the silver screen in the seventies thanks to an extremely obscure live-action adaptation that I’m sure the vast majority of people have never heard of. Dr. Strange also cropped up in Marvel cartoons over the years, and even had a feature-length animated adventure back in 2007, but another live-action adaptation very nearly happened in the late-eighties and mid-nineties as well. After many failed attempts to bring the character to cinema screens throughout the 2000s, the legalities surrounding Dr. Strange were tidied up when, in 2014, Dr. Strange was officially announced to be part of the MCU’s third phase of films. Scott Derrickson was chosen to helm the film after producing not only a twelve-page scene for the film but also a ninety-minute pitch, concept art, and even an animatic all at his own expense. Derrickson’s background was in horror, and he aimed to ensure that he had actors of the highest calibre to experience the film’s fantastical elements. Although many actors were considered for the title role, Derrickson (and many fans) always envisioned Benedict Cumberbatch as the Sorcerer Supreme, and the actor took great care to properly reproduce the character’s hand gestures from Ditko’s art work. Derrickson also returned to Ditko’s original art for the film’s special effects, which aimed to bombard the viewer with surreal imagery and fantastical visuals to set the film apart from others in the MCU. Despite being one of Marvel’s more obscure superheroes, Doctor Strange was a massive success; its worldwide gross of almost $680 million ensured that the film would receive a sequel, and the film was universally praised for its visuals and originality in a genre quickly becoming bloated with superhero adventures.

The Review:
I remember being quite excited and intrigued when Doctor Strange was announced and the first trailers dropped; Dr. Strange is another Marvel superhero who I am not really all that familiar with, as my reading of him is limited to a few sporadic appearances in other stories and the comics collected in his Marvel Platinum compilation. Thus, the bulk of my knowledge about him comes from what I’ve read online, his appearances in the 1994 Spider-Man cartoon, and the aforementioned animated feature; however, it turned out that this was more than enough to make me familiar with the character, some of his abilities, and a couple of his major enemies ahead of seeing his live-action debut for the first time.

Arrogant neurosurgeon Dr. Strange is ironically left unable to operate after a devastating car crash.

When we’re first introduced to Dr. Strange, he’s already a wealthy, acclaimed, and arrogant neurosurgeon; so talented are Dr. Strange’s abilities that he can easily perform life-saving brain surgery while identifying music tracks, and not only instantly identify a premature case of brain death and operate on a man already declared clinically dead but also perform complex invasive procedures into the brain without the aid of scans or camera imagery. Dr. Strange is so full of himself that he talks down to others at every opportunity, offering little in the way of professional courtesy or respect, and routinely turns down surgical prospects that he deems unworthy of this time and attention in order to be given a real challenge. He believes that a normal, everyday Emergency Room is a “butcher’s shop” that is capable of only saving one life at a time compared to the scope of his more specialised field of expertise, which has brought him fame and acclaim. This has bought him a luxurious apartment full of expensive clothes and accessories, and a supercar that he drives with reckless abandon that is only compounded by his insistence on talking on speaker phone while rocketing around tight, winding roads outside of the city; distracted by his phone, Dr. Strange is blindsided and sent careening down a cliff side in a horrific car crash that leaves him a bloodied, broken mess. Although he survives, his hands are completed shattered from the accident and, following many painful and desperate surgeries, he is left frustrated and angered by a constant trembling in his hands that spells the end of his surgical career.

Former lover Christine is the closet thing Dr. Strange has to a friend.

Dr. Strange’s condescending attitude and tendency to show off means he clashes with fellow surgeon Nicodemus “Nick” West (Michael Stuhlbarg), a fully qualified and experienced doctor whom Dr. Strange sees as an incompetent fool at the start of the film. Dr. Strange partially blames Nick for the state of his wrecked hands mid-way through the film, but he is forced to turn to him later on when his trembling hands still prove incapable of performing surgery. However, while also frustrated by Dr. Strange’s attitude, his medical skill and sheer genius in the operating room are a source of awe to Doctor Christine Palmer (McAdams), a former lover of Strange’s and the closest thing he has to a friend. While he helps her with a misdiagnosed patient, he does so mainly to stick it to Nick and more to show off his incredible talents rather than out of any kind of professional courtesy, and, though the two share some banter given their previous relationship, she knows all-too-well how vain and self-centred Dr. Strange is. However, even she couldn’t predict the sudden shift in his attitude following the accident; where he was once arrogant and condescending, Dr. Strange becomes a broken, infuriated, embittered man who lashes out at her attempts to help, drains his fortune on experimental procedures, and is so driven to desperation that he seeks out Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a former paraplegic who made a miraculous recovery and points him towards Kamar-Taj.

Mordo is a devout follower of the Ancient One, an all-powerful sorcerer with a dark secret.

Using the last of his resources, Dr. Strange travels to Kathmandu to seek out the mysterious Kamar-Taj and attracts the attention of Karl Mordo (Ejiofor), who saves Strange from a brutal beating at the hands of muggers and brings him to the doorstep of a dilapidated building, where he is introduced to “The Ancient One”. Even in his pain and suffering, Dr. Strange remains sceptical and somewhat insolent; this is understandable, to be fair, given he’s a man of science and logic and the idea of magic is as bizarre to him as it would be to us, but his insolence is only exacerbated thanks to his relentless ego and temper. Mordo empathises with Strange’s scepticism, and even relates to it, but is a far more respectful and informed individual after learning from the Ancient One. The Ancient One literally forces Dr. Strange to open his eyes to a wider world, one beyond the limits of the physical body and his rational perspective on life, by pushing him into the Astral Dimension by separating his Astral Form from his body. There, beyond time and space and the limits of reality, he is given the briefest glimpse of the vast, dangerous wonder of the multiverse. Though cast away from Kamar-Taj, Dr. Strange’s stubbornness impresses Mordo, who is able to convince the Ancient One to give the damaged neurosurgeon a chance to redeem himself under their tutelage, despite the similarities she sees between Strange and Kaecilius.

Though a quick study, Dr. Strange struggles to overcome his scepticism and his physical ailments.

What follows is an extended training montage in which the Ancient One introduces to Dr. Strange (an the audience) the logistics of magic and how it works in the MCU; through training and hard work, sorcerers are able to draw upon energies from across the multiverse to conjure weapons, cast spells, and work wonders. Because of the damage to his hands, Strange initially struggles with the physical aspects of his training, but is humbled when he sees an amputee performing spells and learns that he must set aside his ego, and his disbelief, in order to succeed; the Ancient One pushes him to this revelation by stranding him on Mount Everest and forcing him to transport himself back or risk death. Thankfully (or conveniently, depending on your perspective), Dr. Strange possesses a photographic memory; just as this allowed him to acquire Medical Doctorate and PhD at the same time, this means that he can digest multiple volumes from the Kamar-Taj library both while awake and asleep thanks to utilising his Astral Form. Dr. Strange’s thirst for knowledge and incredible learning ability impresses the Kamar-Taj librarian, Wong (Wong), who puts Strange onto more advanced tomes and warns him against stealing from the Ancient One’s private collection. Stoic and gruff, Wong provides much of the film’s comic relief, but it’s also through him (and while learning combat alongside Mordo) that Dr. Strange learns more about Kaecilius and how he fell from grace.

Kaecilius is determined to expose the Ancient One and “save” the world from death and suffering.

Kaecilius was introduced at the very start of the film, when he and his zealots attacked Kamar-Taj, and stole pages from one of the library’s many mystical tomes before managing to escape from the Ancient One after one hell of a visually impressive confrontation in what we later learn is the “Mirror Dimension”, a pocket reality where the environment is constantly shifting and changed around the inhabitants as the caster dictates. Proud and headstrong, Kaecilius questioned the Ancient One’s teachings and turned against his teacher after learning that the Ancient One was drawing forbidden powers from the Dark Dimension to extend her lifespan and grant her her awesome powers. A cold, driven man, Kaecilius believes her to be a hypocrite who deceived all of her pupils and, alongside those he has convinced to his cause, works to decipher the pages he stole from Kamar-Taj to both draw from that same dark energy and expose the Ancient One’s true nature. This sees him, and his fellow zealots, become imbued with the malevolent influence of the Dread Dormammu (Cumberbatch), a primordial cosmic entity that is seemingly the embodiment of hatred and seeks to infest and conquer all realities using sorcerers like Kaecilius as puppets. Kaecilius, sadly, falls into the same trap as many MCU villains in that he’s largely a waste of a talented actor and disappointingly absent for much of the film; spoken about as a kind of bogeyman and as a dark mirror of Dr. Strange, Kaecilius ends up being a lot like Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) in that he makes an impression when he is on screen thanks to Mikkelsen’s scowling countenance and silky-smooth line delivery but ends up being a regrettably forgettable villain who is simply there to give Dr. Strange someone to fight against and strive to be the opposite of.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Magic such as this is a tricky concept to bring to life, and was wholly new to the MCU at the time; we had seen a version of magic before, of course, one that is just as much attributed to near-God-like alien physiology and technology, but had never seen literal, unequivocal magical spells and abilities before. Thus, it was smart of the film to introduce this franchise-changing concept slowly, and in a way that kept things tantalisingly grounded (for the most part) while hinting at magic’s incredible (and near-limitless potential). Sorcerers tend to limit their magic to glowing, sparking whips, shields, or melee weapons and to instantaneously shift from one location to another, and often focus their abilities through weapons or objects such as the Staff of the Living Tribunal or the Sling Ring. The film slowly develops the wealth and potential of magic as it progresses, localising it in the mysterious foreign land of Kamar-Taj and then expanding it to encompass more familiar and urban locations, such as New York City. This allows us to see that this kind of magic has always existed in the MCU, we just haven’t experienced it yet, and it was smart to frame magic, and the secret of Kamar-Taj, as a mystery that Dr. Strange must solve.

Dr. Strange mostly focuses on defensive magic, but recklessly experiments with the Time Stone.

Wong reveals to Dr. Strange that the true purpose of Kamar-Taj, and the sorcerers, is to man three Sanctum Sanctorums across the world and continuously fend off threats from beyond their world, such as Dormammu, in an on-going battle of light against darkness. Despite everything he’s seen and learned, this is where Dr. Strange initially chooses to bow out since he has no intention of fighting a magical war, but he is forced to fight alongside Mordo and Wong when Kaecilius suddenly attacks the Sanctum Sanctorums. Though a talented and peerless surgeon, Dr. Strange struggles to learn the ways of magic; even after absorbing knowledge from Wong’s library, he is severely outmatched against Kaecilius and his followers, and succeeds only through luck, the use of rudimentary spells, and the intervention of the Cloak of Levitation, a semi-sentient cape that allows him to fly and adds more comic relief to the film. Dr. Strange’s scepticism soon turns to an insatiable thirst for knowledge and to challenge himself by experimenting with more and more advanced magic; this not only leads him to steal volumes from the library and question the nature of Kamar-Taj, but also to experiment with the Eye of Agamotto. This ancient relic houses the Time Stone and allows the user to control the flow of time itself, localising it to reverse or speed up time as they dictate, and Wong and Mordo are angered by Strange’s recklessness with the Infinity Stone. Mordo, in particular, is outraged at Strange’s careless tampering with the laws of reality, something he believes should be protected at all costs, just as he whole-heartedly believes in the teachings and standards set by the Ancient One.  

The Ancient One teaches Dr. Strange about the vast dangers of the multiverse which dwarf his ego.

The multiverse is presented as a veritable acid trip, a bizarre bombardment of colours, energy, and surreal environments that overwhelm Dr. Strange’s perception of reality and throw all logic out of the window. This, and the fantastical nature of Dr. Strange, allows the film to stand out from others in the MCU with some truly trippy visuals, such as New York collapsing in on itself, Dr. Strange’s Astral Form directing Christine’s attempts to save his physical body (and even killing one of Kaecilius’s followers, something he is aghast at thanks to his Hippocratic Oath), and worlds full of fantastic visuals, warped gravity, and cosmic impossibilities that exist side-by-side with a Dark Dimension full of malice and hatred, where only malevolence lives. Seduced by Dormammu’s influence, Kaecilius longs to destroy all concepts of time and allow the Dark Dimension to envelop the world in a perverted attempt to “save” it. So driven by his conviction and power is Kaecilius that he fatally wounds the Ancient One, but not before revealing that the Ancient One has been drawing power from the Dark Dimension. Before dying, the Ancient One explains to Dr. Strange, in the Astral Dimension, that her methods were necessary in order to defend the world and that such bending of the rules will be necessary to balance out Mordo’s steadfast nature and defeat Kaecilius.

Dr. Strange successfully bargains with Dormammu, but Mordo is left disillusioned by deception.

Indeed, Dr. Strange is faced with an apocalyptic scenario when Kaecilius and his zealots conjure Dormammu in Hong Kong, leading to widespread chaos and destruction and the deaths of Wong and many other sorcerers. Taking the Ancient One’s words to heart, Dr. Strange sees no other option but to first reverse time to restore those who have fallen and journey to the Dark Dimension himself and confront Dormammu head-on. There, in a world of swirling, nightmarish, eldritch horror, we see how truly gigantic the scope of the MCU is as the titanic cosmic being that is the Dread Dormammu dwarfs the fledging sorcerer and threatens to overcome the entire world and spread his reach to every man, woman, and child. However, Dr. Strange has the last laugh when he unleashes the power of the Time Stone to trap Dormammu in an ever-repeating loop of time; there, Dormammu’s continual attempts to kill Dr. Strange, though successful, ultimately fail as the loop resets over and over, angered the malevolent creature since he is unfamiliar with the concept of time and forced to bargain with Dr. Strange. In return for taking Kaecilius and his followers and abandoning his desires to consume the Earth, Dr. Strange agrees to release Dormammu from the loop, thus saving the entire world and ending the threat from the Dark Dimension. Although we see Dr. Strange die again and again, we have no way of knowing exactly how long this loop lasted for, or how much pain and suffering Dr. Strange endured as he made perhaps the greatest sacrifice of anyone in the MCU as he was fully committed to ending his days in that cycle of death and this moment not only completed Dr. Strange’s character arc in the film of learning to set aside his ego but also cemented him as a big-time player in the larger MCU. Unfortunately, while Dr. Strange finally sees that his true destiny is to serve a greater good, Mordo is disillusioned by the revelations and the lengths that Strange goes to to repel Dormammu and pledges to rid the world of sorcerers.

The Summary:
Doctor Strange remains one of the most unique and intriguing entries in the MCU; even when Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth) first burst into the franchise and shook it up by introducing Gods and a version of magic, and we started seeing the first hints of the Infinity Stones, I never would have guessed that we would see the Sorcerer Supreme reversing the flow of time, fending off cosmic entities like Dormammu, or blowing the fabric of his fictional world apart with concepts like the multiverse. And yet, at its core, Doctor Strange is the humbling story of redemption for a vain, arrogant asshole of a man who endures a horrific accident, has his entire world destroyed, and is forced to accept a greater destiny. It’s pretty clear now that the intention was to set up Doctor Strange as a counterpart to Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr); both are snarky, self-absorbed men who put their unique talents to use in service of both personal glory and the wellbeing of the world around them. However, while Iron Man helped to ground the MCU and make its fantastical elements relatable, Dr. Strange’s very existence meant that the scope of the MCU was basically limitless and we’ve since seen that it stretches beyond even our reality. Full of mind-bending visuals that make for some entertaining action sequences, Doctor Strange might have played things a little too safe but that’s not exactly a bad thing when it comes to a concept like magic, which can basically do anything and make characters like Dr. Strange severely overpowered. Thankfully, the film frames Strange as very much a rookie and struggling to master and even fully understand this bizarre world he has entered into, meaning that subsequent appearances by the character can simply build upon the foundations laid by this fantastical first film.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Were you a fan of Doctor Strange? What did you think to the introduction of magic to the MCU and the way the film explained the concept? Did you enjoy Dr. Strange’s character arc and portrayal in the film? What did you think to the Ancient One and the depiction of Mordo? Were you also a little disappointed by Kaecilius, and what did you think to the final showdown between Dr. Strange and Dormammu? What are some of your favourite stories involving these characters and do you think Dr. Strange is too overpowered as a character? Whatever your thoughts on Doctor Strange, sign up to leave your thoughts below or leave a comment on my social media, and check back in next Sunday for more Multiverse Madness!

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