Doctor Strange has brought the ridiculous back to superhero movies, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Marvel has almost entirely traded combat for spectacle, drab grunting for magical thinking, in an eye-candy classic combining the collapsing environments of Inception with the psuedo-sciencey stoner what-ifs of Interstellar and the visual wizardry of the Quicksilver scene from X-Men: Days of Future Past. It’s one big psychedelic kaleidoscope of collapsing influences, and without its Open your mind, maaaan MacGuffin it wouldn’t work nearly so well.
Turns out we needed magical thinking now more than ever. Movies have gotten so plot-heavy in the past few years, with 10 feuding factions of secret cabals no one truly cares about, that it’s nice to see one give us just enough story to inspire spectacular visuals (and not enough to constrain them). Also, no black SUVs flipping over, which was nice. There’s one scene in which the wizard guru played by Tilda Swinton knocks Dr. Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch — just dead-on wizard casting all around) out of his own body, through the astral plane, beyond outer space, and into a dimension of pure metaphysics. It’s so deliciously batshit and visually stunning that it should inspire a new Oscar category for VFX set pieces.
Okay, so here’s the plot: Benedict Cumberbatch (who I’m convinced looks like a handsome version of young Jim Carrey’s Brezhnev impression) plays Stephen Strange (I love that no matter how much the movies try to elevate comic book subject matter they always retain their goofy names), an arrogant surgeon with a God complex who crashes his Lamborghini down a cliff and crushes his scalpel hands. Paradoxically, this humbling adversity serves only to make him more of a dick to everyone, including his long-suffering, human baby seal of a girlfriend played by Rachel McAdams. With his empire crumbling, Strange becomes reminiscent of Patton Oswalt’s bit about obituaries (“Bob Smith died today after a craven, cowardly ordeal with cancer, during which he wished the disease on his family and friends and attempted a pact with Satan which left his basement covered in goat’s blood and four boxes of chalk, needlessly wasted, trying to summon a demon who never appeared”).
His flailing attempts to change what cannot be changed eventually lead Strange to Nepal. It’s there that he meets Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s characters, takes the red pill, learns kung fu, heals himself, and becomes a superhero, by humbling himself and accepting the knowledge of the ancients and praying to the magic crystals and whatnot. It’s a pretty rapid about face for old Steve, but then, a bald Tilda Swinton punting your soul into the upside down world will do that to a person.
Marvel, and superhero movies in general, desperately needed a dose of this ridiculousness. Captain America: Civil War was so painfully grounded that the entire plot hinged on the Avengers submitting to UN oversight, which is just as supernatural in its own way as Doctor Strange‘s wizard stuff, only not at all interesting. It’s like a hall monitor’s fever dream where all humanity hinges on enforcement of asinine rules. By contrast, Doctor Strange creates for itself a world where anything is possible.
We accept the fantastic mainly because the story makes us want to. See, the true antagonist in Doctor Strange is time, and time is a timeless adversary. Stephen Strange wants desperately to turn back the clock, and when he finally learns how, he gets caught up in a battle between The Ancient One (Swinton) and her psychedelic Avengers and The Ancient One’s former student, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). Kaecilius hopes to build “a world beyond time,” with the help of Dormammu from the Dark Dimension. Which involves… uh… plunging the universe into darkness or whatever. I’m still unclear on this part, but because of the way Doctor Strange is grounded in relatable worries, we’re willing to follow it anywhere. Nothing inspires magical thinking like facing mortality. Whereas Civil War and Batman V Superman both tried to rest on unearned humanism, feigning remorse for the collateral damage in previous movies (snoozebarf), Doctor Strange is the real deal. “Death is what gives life meaning,” The Ancient One tells Stephen Strange.
And with that as the doorway, it gives us an entire world of magic to retreat into, accessible to anyone who learns to open their third eye (no wonder Jaden Smith thinks it’s a documentary). After that it lives almost entirely inside the time travel paradox. Which, as proven time and time again, by everything from Terminator to Back to the Future to Looper, works perfectly fine in storytelling, so long as you have a character there to tell us “Your mind won’t completely be able to fathom this part, but just go with me here…”
We go there because we want to, not because it always makes logical sense. Like a cult leader who prefaces his wild promises with “This is going to sound crazy, but…”, Doctor Strange is also brilliant at using humor to disarm cynicism. When Stephen Strange finally makes it into the temple (after standing outside in the cold for days as some Fight Club-style hazing ritual), Ejiofor’s character hands him a note card with a strange word on it. “What is this, my mantra?” Strange asks derisively, still seeming pretty dismissive for a guy who was just standing outside for hours. “It’s the wi-fi password,” Ejiofor’s character says. “We’re not savages.”
Likewise, Kaecilius’ pitch of creating a world without death immune to time doesn’t sound half bad, except that he and his minions sort of look like they’re starting a raccoon-themed German techno band. Doctor Strange doesn’t exactly rebut the science of Kaecilius’s proposal so much as shout “Yeah, but look at your face, bro!”
It’s this exact combination of the cheeky and the profound that makes Doctor Strange (and virtually every great comic book narrative) work. It’s intermittently funny in a way that doesn’t feel like Ant Man-esque mandated levity. Likewise, the finale, in which Strange creates a timeloop in order to save the universe from dark matter (or something like that), is more sight gag than fight scene.
And that, ultimately, is why Doctor Strange works (that and a brilliant visual effects team, anyway). Lately it’s seemed like every superhero movie has involved protagonists solving an existential threat with punching. Either the stakes have to get smaller or the methods have to change. In Doctor Strange, the stakes are almost comically huge, but the methods are just big enough. Learning to accept mortality, well, that seems like a much greater feat than learning to punch good.