Marvel’s strangest movie yet is here
Strange things are happening in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“Doctor Strange,” the 14th film in the interlocking superhero saga, drops today. And it’s a little different from all those Avengers-related movies.
First, it acknowledges the rest of the MCU even less, arguably, than “Guardians of the Galaxy” did. There are maybe three references, if you count one of the end credits tag sequences. Stan Lee makes another cameo, and that’s about it.
Foremost, this thing looks as hallucinogenic as Doctor Strange creator Steve Ditko’s drawings did when the Master of the Mystic Arts was introduced to comic books in 1963. Also like the comic, the movie is obsessed with terrifying other dimensions, and it has more pronounced spiritual wisdom than the comics — as well as any other Hollywood movie you could think of — did.
And while it’s also loaded with the action and laughs we expect from a Marvel production, this Scott Derrickson-directed film has the most unpleasant hero the MCU has unleashed yet.
“We always knew that part of that story — in those three panels in that first eight pages and other versions of the Strange origin — there was that downfall,” notes Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige. ”Much more so than (Iron Man) Tony Stark, right? There’s a similarity, written by Stan in the day, of a successful person undergoes a shocking injury and emerges as a different person.
“But Strange is unlikable in the comics, which we wanted to be true to,” Feige continues. “And that’s one of the reasons we wanted Benedict Cumberbatch so bad. Look at his Sherlock, look at ‘The Imitation Game.’ ... He’s even played Julian Assange! In those roles, he’s not always likable. He does everything he can to push people away, but there is something about him that you root for.”
Cumberbatch digs deeper into the Strange/Sherlock Holmes comparisons.
“There is the crossover of clever and arrogant, I suppose,” the English actor says. “And workaholic. But you know, Strange is a materialist. He’s egocentric, yes, but he’s got charm and he’s witty. He’s liked by his colleagues, he’s had relationships with them. He’s not this sort of cut-off outsider, sociopathic, asexual obsessive that Sherlock is. So yeah, there’s a world of difference, and yeah, he lives in New York and eats bagels every now and again, so that’s also different.”
After the hotshot surgeon’s hands are wrecked in a horrific car accident, he alienates the few that cared for him, primarily Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), as he struggles to find a cure. Exhausting medical science’s capabilities, Strange travels to Nepal, where he seeks magical healing from The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton in the film, an ancient Asian man in the comics, but more on that later).
She’s more into teaching the American smartass how to handle otherworldly powers that we here on Earth associate with sorcery. An adept student, Strange is befriended and aided by fellow acolyte Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor in the movie, a Central European baron in the books, but more on that ...) and the A.O.’s cranky library-keeper, Wong (Benedict Wong in the movie, Strange’s manservant in the strips, BMOTL).
However, renegade student Kaecilius (TV “Hannibal” Mads Mikkelsen) has stolen some sacred pages that enable him to summon the Dark Dimension ruler Dormammu to our world. It falls to Strange and his allies to prevent this, and the stuff they come up with is certifiably mind-bending.
“I grew up reading Marvel Comics, and Doctor Strange always stood out to me as a weird aberration,” says director Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”). “It spoke to me more than the other comics for a variety of reasons, the first of which was it was just so psychedelically weird and cool-looking. And it had darker, mystical tones and really interesting ideas in it.
“When it came to the visual design of the movie and the development of a tent-pole action movie for an audience, my goal was using big-budget movie visual effects to do things that had not been done before,” Derrickson continues. “And to do things other than explosions and gunfights and mass destruction, to really develop this idea of other dimensions, which is essential to the Doctor Strange comics.”
So, when the A.O. sends Strange on his first Magical Mystery Tour, as Feige calls it, and when he later confronts Dormammu on the demon’s own turf, they look like acid freakouts unseen on screen since 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Crazy stuff happens on our planet, too, as the contending mystics manipulate time and turn cityscapes into shattered and churning kaleidoscopes that generate gravity in 360 directions.
The lysergic parts lean heavily on CG and were clearly inspired by a lot of Ditko drawings. Feige says the folding building stuff can also be found in a few panels, but acknowledges its debt to Christopher Nolan’s 2010 head trip “Inception.”
“As you see in some of the wide shots in the movie, it’s not just a single city folded around,” Feige points out. “The cityscape cubes up into these islands; those images were in the comics. Obviously, ‘Inception’ has that moment, which is amazing, and that will be most people’s reference point to it, but our attempt was: How do you do a chase scene through New York in a way that you have never seen before, and in a way that only Doctor Strange or people dealing with what we call the Mirror Dimension can do it.”
So, how’d the filmmakers do it?
“Sometimes the actors and stunt people were running on the streets of New York,” Feige reveals. “Sometimes they were running on a treadmill on a green screen. Sometimes they were on wires. Sometimes you just turned the camera upside down! It’s fun, right? It’s an amazing balance of good old-fashioned smoke-and-mirrors and unbelievable modern technology.”
Modern attitudes informed casting choices too, according to Feige. That hasn’t stopped people from noting-that a key Asian role is occupied by an ethereal British woman, though. Conversely, few have commented upon the Mordo role being played by an English actor with Nigerian parents.
“So much has been said about this, I hope people now see the movie and see why we thought Tilda would be so perfect for this part,” Feige says of the Ancient One. “And to see what a strong — and he comes close to stealing the movie — character Wong is. He was portrayed certain ways in the comics, and we wanted to do something very different from that.
“But as we’ve said before, we want our movies to reflect the world as it is today. We want everybody to be able to come into one of our films and to see themselves reflected in it. That was one of the reasons why we wanted to make the bestower of universal wisdom a woman.”
As for that enlightenment, both teacher and student consider it integral to “Doctor Strange’s” movie existence.
“If anything, maybe more than ever, we need to concentrate on opening our minds, and in particular to knowing that our minds are ours to have some kind of perspective on,” Swinton remarks when asked if the film has a 1960s spiritual vibe.
“There’s something really radical that’s said in this film, which is that ego and fear are things to be lived beyond, and let’s face it, this is a hot topic. We really, really need people to remind us right now that ego and fear are not necessarily the only option we can live through. This is such a modern film for that reason, and I would say that’s the reason why it’s perfect that it’s made now, because the time is really right for it.”
“You know, it’s about mindfulness in a sense; I think that’s the common derivative which has carried through,” Cumberbatch adds. “Culturally we’re still referencing that era; we always will. It was a very strong moment in all culture. But I think you have to reinvent the wheel slightly. You can’t just replicate it. This is a film for now. But I think like Tilda was saying, the strongest message is the idea that you, with your mind, have the power to change your reality, and that’s a great, wonderful, freeing, egoless message. And also you do that with the idea of doing it for the good of others, and you’re onto a very, very good thing, as Doctor Strange gets to by the end of the film.”
Benedict Cumberbatch stars in “Doctor Strange.”