Just when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was starting to bore me, along comes horror director Scott Derrickson to completely re-energize it. This film not only feels like a breath of fresh air narratively, but visually, as well. It’s been a long time since a movie’s visual effects left me stunned, but Doctor Strange features such virtuoso filmmaking that I found myself asking not merely how the director did it, but how he even conceived of it. That is the mark of true creativity and freshness. While so many other films in the MCU were phoning it in, Doctor Strange sets out to genuinely intrigue and astound its audience.
The story is about a cocky surgeon, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who loses the ability to operate after a terrible car accident. As he seeks out remedies, he stumbles upon the concept of holistic healing. This leads him to a mystical temple in Nepal, where a mysterious figure known simply as “The Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton) waits to enlighten him. What she teaches Strange goes far beyond basic holistic healing and stretches as far as understanding and manipulating other dimensions and realities.
A good portion of the film is dedicated to what could be a standard training/learning montage. However, Derrickson understands that the audience has seen this countless times and opts to show us things that we haven’t seen before. Featuring sequences that are more out of 2001: A Space Odyssey than a run-of-the-mill comic book movie, Derrickson brings his unique horror sensibility to add a layer of wariness to these moments. While Strange does seem to accept these metaphysical notions rather quickly, one can’t say they’re unearned. The insane things that he is shown would be enough to convince even the most ardent of skeptics.
It is this last point that I’d like to discuss for a moment. One thing that I found particularly refreshing was the character of Strange himself. At this point, there is a formula to how these Marvel characters operate. They are quippy and light, even in the most dire of circumstances. At first, this was itself a new development, as Tony Stark in Iron Man was a nice contrast to Christian Bale’s dour Batman. However, with each new entry in the MCU, these character traits become tiresome. With Strange, however, we have a man who starts the film as egotistical and arrogant – and, yes, quippy – but ends as serious and compassionate and humble. This may actually be the most dramatic character arc of the MCU so far. Strange is very notably different at the end of the film.
But why? What makes Strange’s origin story so dramatically different than that of his fellow MCU heroes?
Perhaps it is my own Christianity that is coming into play – though, given Derrickson’s own spiritual beliefs, I don’t think I’m that off base – but I think it is Strange’s encounters with the eternal. He makes it very clear early on in the film that he takes a materialistic view of the world. We are all here for a short time, and very few of us live lives of any significance. His assumption of his own insignificance is the key to why he so desperately wants to heal himself. He is a truly gifted surgeon; that is his identity. Without his hands, he is truly nothing.
But he soon discovers that there is much more than what we merely see. As he comes to understand the spiritual truths of the world around him, his arrogance starts to drain away, though he still clings to the idea that he will once again be able to operate someday. However, the deeper into the mystical he delves, the more responsible he feels. He knows things that other people don’t, but – unlike his surgical abilities – this knowledge doesn’t build up his ego. Instead, because this knowledge comes from something otherworldly, it only makes him more humble.
It finally comes to the point at which Strange must choose between using his new knowledge and abilities for purely selfish means in order to have his old life back or sacrificing his pride and his status to be a part of something larger. As Strange slowly begins to accept his brokenness, he finally comes to know who he is and the important role he has to play. In other words, he finally becomes significant, but in a much more vital way.
Doctor Strange is, at times, kind of silly and there are aspects of the origin story that are very conventional. But nobody can call into question Scott Derrickson’s exploration of the themes of eternal significance nor his commitment to realizing this unique vision of the world. He has injected some much-needed energy into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and perhaps into blockbuster filmmaking in general. His excitement and investment in the story he is telling is so obvious that it becomes infectious, and the audience can only sit back and marvel at the images he puts before us.