There were rumblings when it became clear that Marvel (and by the end of their second year) might not focus on aspects of their comic book world that was too fantastical. How about the serum used to create the Hulk? Science-based. Thor and the Asgardians? Rooted in science, misunderstood by man, and misinterpreted throughout history. How about that army that Loki drew on to conquer Earth? Aliens from a distant part of the galaxy, perhaps even another one, we’re still working out all of the details. The simple fact was that any fantastical element included could be grounded in science. That is until the decision came to create a film around Doctor Strange.
At that point, it wasn’t possible to simply sit back and use science as the end-all, be-all explanation for how things worked in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, several future films would go back and add additional detail, making it clear that magic had always existed in their universe. We just tried to explain it away as science (I’m looking at the Tesseract).
When Doctor Strange appeared in theaters in 2016, I knew a bit about the arrogant Sorcerer Supreme, enough that I could grasp the story’s general concepts without needing to know every little detail about the supporting characters. For an adaptation of an existing piece of work, this can be critical to enjoying it. Coming in with preconceived notions about what should be, what would be, and what could be can and will impact how much you enjoy said adaptation. Depending on where on the scale you fall.
As mentioned, Dr. Stephen Strange is so arrogant that when he is on his way to an award, dismissing potential cases out of hand for not being challenging enough, he dramatically crashes his car. The only long-lasting injury from this crash is the irreparable damage to his precious hands, the most critical tools for a surgeon. Despite being successful, privileged, and wealthy, he did enjoy his work as a surgeon – such that it was almost entirely what his life revolved around. Without it, he’s lost and lashes out at everybody around him, even those who are trying to help him cope with his new reality. With little hope left, he hears of somebody who went from being a quadriplegic to walking and seeks the man out, sending him on a whirlwind adventure that would forever alter his fate and the fate of the universe.
Benedict Cumberbatch, the man whose name is often said with many different words, and everybody knows exactly who is being talked about, plays the titular Mr. Doctor (it’s strange, but who am I to judge), and he is precisely who I imagined based on my experience with the character. Whether it was a comic book he featured in (X-Men is my go-to, and his interactions with Magik are the highlight of my day, sometimes) or a video game, such as Marvel Ultimate Alliance, he is known for a few critical character traits. Magical aptitude and his immense, almost unmatched, arrogance. Benedict Cumberbatch did not disappoint in the latter regard, emulating a perfect visage of the character that I had in my mind.
Building up the supporting cast includes Rachel McAdams as Dr. Christine Palmer, who is ostensibly Stephen Strange’s love interest yet is almost completely incidental to the plot of the story. McAdams does what she can with her limited screen time, taking absolutely no nonsense from Stephen. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Karl Mordo, who brings Stephen into the Kamar Taj, where new sorcerers are trained in the mystic arts, playing the straight man to Doctor Strange’s comedic antics as he wanders through a world foreign to his own. A true stand-out, though, is Benedict Wong as Wong (it was a coincidence, they swear), who is the newly installed librarian of Kamar Taj after the last one had his head cut off in the opening scene of the movie. Rounding out the heroes with important roles is Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One – a long-lived being of immense magical power.
Mads Mikkelsen plays Kaecilius, the undisputed villain for most of the film. I say most because Benedict Cumberbatch would end up pulling double duty as Dormammu, a dimensional entity from which magic users can draw power and is itself immune to pesky things like time. Kaecilius draws power from him, as do his acolytes, and have plans to join him. What they thought that meant is anybody’s guess.
Two additional characters with somewhat substantial roles include Michael Stuhlbarg as Nicodemus West, a rival surgeon to Stephen, who makes a critical error that could have cost somebody their life. The last is Benjamin Bratt’s character, Jonathan Pangborn, who would give direction to Stephen in his search for a miracle cure when traditional science and experimental procedures fail to reduce the damage caused to his hand.
The journey that Stephen Strange takes, from an arrogant surgeon to damaged and humiliated, to novice magic user, to ostensibly one of the most powerful magic users in the world (if not the universe), is intense. By exploring another side to their massive universe, we were able to have a new explanation for why certain items exist, how certain characters’ powers or abilities can manifest, and to what entities may lie beyond our current comprehension or understanding. Doctor Strange was a pivotal entry to the MCU for these very reasons and continues to be the backbone for the mystical side of their long-form cinematic storytelling.
Doctor Strange also toys with the concept of morality for morality’s sake. The world as we know it is shades of grey, and yet certain characters would like to wish that it was easily divided between black and white, dark magic and light magic, good and evil. How one interprets morality is also key – Dormammu is an entity that exists outside of our social constraints, something that Kaecilius and his surviving acolytes learn the hard way when they are granted precisely what they always wanted. Yet, how one uses magic, and its moral alignment, is no less integral to the story. A late reveal on how the Ancient One uses magic is a triggering point for another character’s fall from grace. Yet, in all his infinite wisdom, Stephen Strange can navigate this tightrope between moral alignments because he understands that sometimes you have to straddle the line to get the job done and save the most people. I think this is because it is foolish to apply moralistic standards to a cosmic force of power. It does what it is willed to do, nothing more and nothing less, and it never obfuscates what the effect will be. Sometimes, you just have to pay attention to the fine print.
Every MCU film relies heavily on CGI to make the fantastical elements work; sometimes, this means entire suits are created on a computer screen, just like an attack, a cityscape, or even the background for a scene. Magic allows for all manner of creative uses for CGI, and the fights between sorcerers are no exception. Every piece is carefully crafted and designed to expand the world on the silver screen, from the terrifyingly beautiful mirror dimension to magical weaponry, to casual uses of temporal magic. When the Dark Dimension appears on screen for the second time (it has a “blink, and you’ll miss it” cameo when Stephen is first introduced to magic by the Ancient One), you are prepared for its vast, generated grandeur.