Long story short, I saw Doctor Strange in theaters twice and am now slightly obsessed.
What else to say? This film is by far the most skillful rehash of the Marvel storyline, with a solid story and some more thoughtful themes than we’ve seen previously. It has beautiful cinematography and CGI, masterful storytelling, and an epic soundtrack by Michael Giacchino. Oh, and it’s now one of the five movies that have ever made me cry. I loved almost everything about it.
And yet I won’t recommend it? No, sir- that is, not to just anyone. And therein lies a tale.
Anywho, I’ve been wondering how to format this post, and at last I decided that it will be what I call a “rant,” in which I simultaneously review a movie and rave about all the little details I like, all the while striving to avoid spoilers- but beware of the comments section, because I can make no promises there!
Like all good reviews, rants begin with an attempt at a plot summary, in case you, like me, have never read any comic books or don’t know anything about this new addition to the Marvel canon.
Stephen Strange, a genius with a photographic memory, is the finest neurosurgeon around, and he knows it. All of which makes it humiliating when a nasty accident destroys the nerves in the arrogant physician’s hands and threatens his career. After blowing his fortune on world-famous doctors who try and fail to help him, Strange uses the last of his money to fly to Kathmandu in the hopes that the stories of miraculous healing at Kamar Taj might somehow come true for him.
There Strange meets the Ancient One and her wizarding folk, who are not what everyone claimed they were- but not as they seem, either. It’s the beginning of Strange’s journey into a whole new world of infinite dimensions. And of course, learning of an infinite dimension, as the Ancient One says, means learning of infinite dangers.
So… the pros.
Let’s start with the obvious- can we just appreciate the characters? There’s Strange,
arrogant and brilliant like Tony Stark, but more likeable and dorky. Then there’s the Ancient One, an awesome fighter and slightly sassy take on the mentor archetype. Baron Mordo, a mentor/sidekick of sorts, is Inspector Javert- end of story. Kaecilius, the main baddie, is powerful enough to challenge the heroes, and his skewed worldview almost makes enough sense to defeat Strange’s will to fight. And then there’s Christine Palmer, the love interest and possibly the only normal person in the whole film. I call her Molly Hooper.
None of the characters is a true hero- not at the beginning, at least- but are what we call “grey characters,” with their own sometimes-questionable goals. Like Strange, each has a unique perspective on the world, and we follow each arc to a logical end (for the first movie in a trilogy, of course).
And oh yes, they all bring their own humor on the adventure. If there’s one thing Marvel can do right, it’s humor.
As for the story itself… I know a lot of bloggers have talked about this already, but Doctor Strange doesn’t shy away from questions about the nature of the universe. (One reviewer calls it “the most religious superhero movie ever.“) Are we matter and nothing more? Is there really no ghost in the machine? Strange thinks so- until the Ancient One literally knocks his ghost (called his astral form) out of him and through a series of colorful spiritual worlds. Strange, like us, is forced to face the very real spiritual realm and find his place in a world that’s bigger than himself.
My favorite scene of the film takes place in a hospital room, where Christine stitches up Strange after an encounter with Kaecilius. One of the minions attacks- in his astral form- and Strange has to fight the guy off. Lights flash and equipment rattles as the two ghostlike figures whirl through the air. Maybe it’s just a cool little addition to an action movie, but it’s more likely supposed to be an allegorical look at the spiritual war in our own world.
And then we have that fantastic mingling of theme and plot that writers always love. At the end of the film, as Dormammu and his Dark Dimension threaten to consume the entire world, Strange makes a bold choice to keep the earth safe. I won’t go into spoilers, but Strange’s plan for counterattack is simultaneously a clever plot twist and a picture of sacrificing everything for a cause that’s bigger than oneself. Besides, it’s a vivid illustration of the gospel in that Strange gives up what matters most to him and faces pain and death in an effort to save the world from the darkness. For me personally, this film gave the opportunity to look at the greatest story ever told from a new angle I’d never seen before.
Besides all this, it’s worth mentioning that the directors take a few shots at some false worldviews. Kaecilius and his little friends, devout followers of something like Buddhism with Gnostic tendencies, spend the film striving for eternal life and enlightenment as part of the One. And- this shouldn’t be a spoiler– it’s this desire that ultimately leads to their defeat. The film also tackles morality: the line between good and evil isn’t the Jedi-like dualism of films like Star Wars, but rather a distinction between right and wrong based on common sense and the ultimate purpose. Magic spells have consequences. Mordo may be an inflexible bringer of justice, but he’s right when he says the bill always comes due.
So why not watch it?
The simple fact is that this movie has the same potential pitfalls as a Harry Potter- if HP had been made by a Christian director of horror films- which is to say, it’s really hard to tell where the line is between Christian and anti-Christian elements. We have on one hand Christian undertones and obvious biblical parallels, and on the other, dark rituals and other confusing territory.
Kamar Taj is a mystical school of sorcery, and it wears that badge more prominently than Hogwarts would ever dream of doing. Strange studies occult books like “The Key of Solomon” and uses a relic called the Eye of Agamotto to manipulate time. Characters meditate and chant, and Kaecilius uses dark spells to open a portal to the Dark Dimension (a Satanic realm) in a Catholic church. I could go on, but you get the idea: Doctor Strange could easily lead a naive person, especially a Christian one, into some dark territory. (Watch this vodcast for more discussion on the occult elements.)
So… who should watch Doctor Strange?
Here’s the way I look at it- if you’re pretty good at discerning truth from lies in twisty stories like Harry Potter or Batman Begins, go right ahead and enjoy what may be the finest Marvel movie ever made. Invite a friend and chat about it- two minds are better than one when it comes to philosophy. But if that isn’t you, better opt for the second best Marvel film, Captain America (being sure to skip that terrible ending, of course).Did you go see Doctor Strange? If so, what’d you think? If not, do you think you’ll give it a try?