“Doctor Strange” stands apart from all the other superhero movies out in the last decade because the previous success of all the different Marvel movies allowed them the comfort and room to expand their visual language and open up their stories to the realm of wild ideas made possible by the metaphysical and existential quandaries and principles brought up by your typical Saturday night college dorm room toot circle or mushroom-induced nighttime forest explorations punctuated with questions such as whether or not there are alternate dimensions beyond time which can be reached via astral projections. Sure there is a guy wearing a cape and a bad guy who wants to destroy the world and a training montage and whatnot, but there are definitely aspects of “Doctor Strange” that keep it separate and unique and interesting in this world of increasingly uniform comic book movies.
Boiled down to its essence, the story of “Doctor Strange” is rather basic. A character goes through a transformation that imbues him (or her, but let’s be real, most of these movies and stories are still about dudes) with skills and/or powers that can then be used to immediately stop a villainous person from destroying a city/country/world/universe. Along the way this new hero also becomes a better person, which almost always means becoming more selfless and helpful than at the beginning of the story.
Specifically, brilliant surgeon Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an arrogant asshole who turns down patients who need his help because the procedures are “too simple” for him. But when he damages his hands and can no longer perform surgery at all, he goes on a journey to find a miracle to heal himself, which leads him to Eastern mysticism, which leads him to a secret society of sorcerers which he readily joins and quickly masters. He does this all to heal himself so he can reclaim his sense of purpose, but of course he learns that his purpose has shifted from saving others to make himself feel powerful to saving others because it is the right thing to do. This involves stopping a bad guy trying to destroy the entire world, too.
It is that Eastern mysticism and sorcery that makes “Doctor Strange” different, but oh good grief is it all ever so different. Stephen Strange doesn’t invent a super suit and learn how to use it nor does he gain powers through some accident which he then learns how to harness nor does he have natural amazing abilities due to some alien heritage or mutated DNA – instead Strange sets out on a path of enlightenment, opening his mind to things he previously dismissed as impossible, pushing his brain to accept thoughts and ideas that he refused to even consider, and he learns the ways of sorcery and magic, eager to know it all and once again be the best. In theory, Strange does something that almost anyone in the world can attempt to do, it just so happens that the same practical skill set he used to become a great surgeon also enabled him to become a sorcerer. This alone makes him a different hero than all the other ones we have seen so far in these movies.
And then his mastery of magic and other dimensions and realms opened up this movie to crazy action scenes and other bits of metaphysical weirdness that make the subatomic quantum level business in “Ant-Man” and the space colony inside a floating head of a dead space god in “Guardians of the Galaxy” seem like child’s play in comparison. There is a surprisingly lengthy trip through a wormhole stargate type of thing pretty early on in “Doctor Strange” that employs the kind of bizarre imagery typically associated with the usage of mind altering substances of the hallucinogenic variety, and this is not even a stand out bit of weirdness in this movie, it is the type of the iceberg. There are moments in this movie that are visually so insane and conceptually so weird that I wonder how this will play out over time with the majority of moviegoers, especially those folks who only see a handful of movies in theaters each year anyway, are the sleeping masses ready for this one waking hero? People say they want something different and here is something that is different, albeit within the story trappings that everyone recognizes, so maybe that will make it easier for audiences when Stephen Strange considers taking his final battle to the realm “beyond time?” Or will they all be like “this is weird, I want men in robosuits who fly!”
“Doctor Strange” is a fun romp of a film, filled with cool weirdness and even some weird coolness, and it is also the rare movie in which the 3D is used quite brilliantly throughout and makes it almost essential to the viewing. If you are going to skip out on all the other superhero movies, this might be the one you want to check out because there is some fucking wild shit in here like you’ve never seen.
(unless you spent your college years eating mushrooms and LSD in which case…you wanna see what that looks like in movie form?)