One of the things that hard to believe about Doctor Strange, the 2016 American superhero film produced by Marvel Studios is that it is the fourteenth film in the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most commercially successful film franchise of all time. It could have been the first - it is fresh, dynamic, confident and a fitting addition to the set. Apart from anything else, it has grossed over $618 million, making it the ninth highest-grossing film of 2016, with positive critical reviews.
On one level, Doctor Strange is about neuro-surgeon Stephen Strange learning the mystic arts from the Ancient One after a career-ending car accident. This simple, straightforward plotline contains a lot of power both as a metaphor and as an emotional channel - part of the film’s success is that it is always about a very human story of a man swallowed up by pride who surfaces as a hero.
In the trailer for the film, and in its opening scene, I had a concern that the special effects were going to be derivative - they were very reminiscent of the 2010 film Inception, with its exploration of the subconscious and its wildly folding cityscapes. The sorcerer Kaecilius and his zealots murder the librarian of a secret sanctuary, and steal a particular ritual from a book belonging to the Ancient One, an apparently immortal mystic who was Kaecilius’ teacher and mentor. The Ancient One pursues the traitors through these folding cityscapes to no avail. In a sense, this opening is risky, throwing its audience in at the deep end of supernatural experiences and giving us no human anchor to hold on to - but Marvel’s strategy has always been high-risk. As part of a supremely successful series of films based largely around Earthbound heroes, Marvel has not been afraid to hurl in completely new elements: both the Asgardian god Thor and the science fiction team the Guardians of the Galaxy were considered ‘off-piste’ at the time of their release, but both triumphed.
What the opening means as far as this particular film goes is that, by the time we meet him, Stephen Strange, his colleagues at the hospital where he works, and the very human arrogance he portrays, are all being viewed through a window of anticipation. We are thus never truly sided with him; we know that there are new and wilder worlds out there, and the first part of the film draws on our anticipation as to how he will discover them.
Passing over several small nods to the wider Marvel universe which are slipped in, including the reference to Strange being asked to help in the case of a marine injured in using experimental armour (which some have taken as a reference to Rhodey’s accident as War Machine in Captain America: Civil War), we are plunged along with Strange into a serious car accident which robs him of the use of his hands. Instead of heeding the advice of a fellow surgeon and former lover, Strange becomes obsessed with regaining the use of his all-important hands, pursuing a number of experimental surgeries in vain. At this point, had it not been for the opening scenes, we would be in the grip of a reasonably enthralling psychological drama, based on the script and the acting talents of Benedict Cumberbatch and Rachel McAdams.
However, when Strange eventually makes it into the presence of the Ancient One, directly challenging her mystical viewpoint with his scientific rationality, she shows Strange the truth, in one of the film’s most powerful scenes: here we depart from Inception and see a complete gamut of effects which are almost overwhelming, as they are intended to be. We quickly become acquainted with the astral plane and other levels of reality like the Mirror Dimension. Strange begs the Ancient One to teach him these mystical secrets, and he begins his tutelage by studying the ancient books in the library, now presided over by the master Wong.
This is the film's second act. Because of the opening scene, there has never been any doubt that we are in the world of an Epic, with real, external, mystical forces, rather than that of an Irony, where everything is psychological: the Earth is protected from other dimensions by a spell formed from three buildings called Sanctums, and it is the task of the sorcerers to protect these Sanctums. Strange’s skills as a student mean that he advances quickly, using the mystical Eye of Agamotto to reconstruct the pages that Kaecilius had stolen at the start of the film, which then allows him to secretly read those pages.
Marvel doesn’t forget its trademark humour: some funny scenes with the ‘fickle’ Cloak of Levitation and the emergence of a sense of humour in Strange both lighten the tone and endear us to him as a protagonist who is gradually softening in his attitude toward others. This is a process which continues until Strange, like the protagonists of most Epics, sacrifices himself for the greater cause: he traps himself and the demon Dormammu in the same moment forever using the power over Time which the Eye of Agamotto has given him. Killing Strange many times to no avail means that Dormammu must eventually reluctantly agree to leave Earth to escape the time-trap; it also means that Strange transcends his self-centred pride and becomes Christ-like in common with most Epic heroes.
The thread which holds this together is Cumberbatch’s energetic portrayal of Stephen Strange: a lesser actor would have led to our faltering belief in the relevance of the wild effects to anything meaningful. Cumberbatch keeps things human and believable, both in terms of an emotional range and a sense of humour. That, along with McAdams sensitive use of only a few lines, is the centripetal force which anchors the film in the reality of a wider audience than the simple Marvel fan; the opposing centrifugal force is driven by the whirling, colourful, multi-layered effects which throw physics not only out of the window but out of many windows, into deserts, oceans, outer space and more. It is the balance of these two forces which proves successful for this film and for Marvel as a whole, whose high-risk approach has yet again paid off.