On My Shelves: Doctor Strange


Well, technically "soon to be on my shelves" since the movie hasn't been released to video yet!

     Capsule summary: A near-perfect adaptation of the origin of Doctor Strange, updated without losing what made it work in the first place. Excellent acting, fine pacing, and clever scripting make this one of the better Marvel offerings, with only a few relatively minor flaws marring what is otherwise a stellar work. Cumberbatch was made to play Doctor Strange, continuing an amazing streak of beautiful casting decisions by Marvel. I look forward to the good Doctor's future appearances.


While he wasn't on the absolute top of my comic purchase list, I always liked Doctor Strange. His comics often had a dreamlike quality that was peculiarly suited to their supernatural themes, and he had a diverse and quite frightening rogues gallery that included foes up to and including the cosmic. As with all the earlier Marvel heroes, he had a background that incorporated very human elements into his development, and that kept affecting the way in which he would approach and solve problems.

Doctor Strange has also been historically highly influential on the Marvel universe, even though his popularity as an individual title never soared to the heights of Spider-Man or the X-Men or Avengers. The latter is probably because many of Strange's best adventures were complex and even cerebral, as much mindgames as duels of power and skill, and many comic readers probably found them either a bit challenging, or simply not what they were looking for in a superhero comic. Nonetheless, Strange has been a member of multiple super-teams and is also a friend and consultant to nearly all the major heroes ranging from the Fantastic Four and Avengers to Spider-Man on matters of the supernatural, and he has been instrumental in many of their adventures and in world-changing events throughout his career.

Naturally I was interested to see how they would approach him for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The first good sign was the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the good Doctor himself; physically Cumberbatch is a good match for Doctor Strange as he has been commonly depicted, being tall and athletic with the ability to project both coldness and charm in equal measures.

On the choice of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One I was more torn; I can understand the desire to increase female presence in stories that were often sausagefests, and to try to avoid the absolute hackneyed Old Asian Master business, but why not, say, someone like Michelle Yeoh? That said, Tilda Swinton is a fine actress and I had no doubt she could handle the basic role.

The casting of Mordo also concerned me, mainly because in the original comics Mordo ("Baron Mordo", to be exact) was the stereotype of the formerly best pupil who comes to resent the new superstar and then betrays his master. Having the only prominent character of color cast as the traitor seemed a bad choice. I'm still not sure of it now, but the situation in the movie did ease that particular concern some.

After a prologue of some obviously nasty people breaking into a magical monastery of some sort, stealing a book, and having a quick and very psychedelic battle against Tilda Swinton's Ancient One, we travel to today, and meet Doctor Steven Strange…

The origin is almost letter-perfect for his comic-book origin, only updating the details of Doctor Stephen Strange's medical background. Here he's a top-flight research surgeon, selecting patients on the basis of how interesting they might be to his career – although a few events show that somewhere inside he does care, at least, about seeing that all doctors do their jobs and save lives.

For the most part, however, he is an arrogant, self-involved superstar who gets away with what he does only because (somewhat like Tony Stark) he really is almost as good as he thinks he is.

Then on a rainy night, distracted in a very 2010s fashion by the information technology in his car, he careens at high speed off a cliff. After some interval, he awakens to find that he is alive… but his hands are so badly shattered they are held in a nightmarish framework just to maintain their shape, and it was long enough between his crash and rescue that permanent nerve damage was done.

His hands are his livelihood, and now they are nigh-useless; even after healing, they are barely able to pick up and hold any ordinary object, not even vaguely good enough in precision or strength to ever perform even middling-good surgery again.

Desperate, Strange throws all his brain and resources into finding some solution, but there is none. Even experimental measures fail, and he is running out of money. Finally, he is shown medical data on a man who completely severed his spine, lost all use of his body… and who then, after disappearing for some time, showed up one day completely functional. Strange tracks the man down and finds him playing basketball – and doing it very, very well – in an urban court. After pleading with him for some information, the man tells him he learned how to heal himself in a place called Kamar-Taj. With nothing left to lose, Strange liquidates the last of his assets and begins to seek out this place, that is not on any map…

This "bridge" part of the story, where Strange has to find Kamar-Taj and then accept the loss of his final anchor to his old life – the supremacy of scientific logic – is crucial to making the story work. Fortunately, it is done well. The Ancient One approaches Strange very directly, realizing that a matter-of-fact approach will be far more shocking and effective than any level of spiritual discussion, and literally knocks him out of his body as the very first introduction to the mystical powers. It only gets more bizarre from there.

Once Strange finally accepts the reality of these powers, he begs to be trained… and is shut out, because the Ancient One has already seen and trained another brilliant promising student who had some similar traits to Strange: Kaecilius, the leader of the group we saw in the opening, who betrayed her and the Temple and stole a dangerous and powerful ritual. Mordo, currently her best student, argues with her that they may need someone like Strange, and that he deserves a chance.

From there, of course, we progress through Strange's accelerating study of the Mystic Arts and to the inevitable conflict with Kaecelius and his patron: the cosmic being called the Dread Dormammu.

I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. Cumberbatch always gives excellent performances, but this seems, to me, to be the role he was born to play. We already knew that he could play arrogant dickheads well, but what we really hadn't seen so clearly was how well he could transition such a character sympathetically. It would be very easy to loathe Strange, but we pity him more than hate him, which is key to sympathizing with him when he really hits bottom and has to start climbing out.

It's not easy to convincingly show an arrogant man truly learning humility, especially when that man still has to be strong enough to carry off the leading role; our society makes this a really difficult transition. Cumberbatch pulls it off, with Stephen Strange even managing to apologize to the fellow surgeon and close friend Christine Palmer while she's trying to save his life – realizing that if he's going to die, this apology is that much more important. Christine had been the only person who had stuck by him as he had collapsed, and he had driven her out of his life.

But it is the climactic battle where his newfound humility is truly tested, and he demonstrates it in what may be the most badass example of absolute selflessness yet seen on film. I won't spoiler that, it's something that should be seen for itself.

Leaving aside the casting issue, Swinton pulls off the Ancient One (who gets a somewhat more complex origin and role than in the original story) perfectly. She is mysterious, dramatic, powerful, and still has a sense of humor and matchless timing for both that humor and drama. She has a secret of her own, too, that Strange eventually discovers and has to deal with.

Chiwetel Ejiofor's Karl Mordo is an interesting character, and not (at least in this movie) a villain. This partly makes up for my concerns about his role; he is, instead, a staunch ally of Strange's and the one who convinces the Ancient One to take in this broken man; he helps train Strange and acts as a spiritual guide in many ways. If he has a weakness, it is the classic Paladin's inflexibility; he believes so strongly in the letter and detail of the teachings he has been given that any violations of these teachings, even for good reason, create terrible conflict within him.

Benedict Wong was cast eponymously as Wong, who is something like a militarized librarian of Kamar-Taj. The original comic had Wong as a Kato-style sidekick; this version of him is much less a stereotype (or at least not one of the Unfortunate Stereotypes) and an excellent foil for the dynamic Doctor.

Kaecilius, played by Mads Mikkelsen, is a strong and direct villain, a good opposite number for both Strange and the Ancient One. I didn't find him quite as strong a villain as I would have liked, partly because he seemed to be too smart not to have seen the potential flaws in his plan, but he was certainly not terrible.

Overall, this was an excellent movie. I particularly liked the ways in which they introduced the two artifacts that most commonly define Strange's look – his peak-collared Levitation Cloak and the Eye of Agamotto – making them interesting objects in their own right and not merely fanboy props.

There were a couple of minor points that keep it from hitting the absolute top-tier of Marvel in my PoV. Perhaps the largest is purely a personal reaction: I saw an awful lot of Inception-style Escher-like psychedelic reality bending, but damn few Doctor Strange-type magical spells. A lot of the magic seemed to be basically magically-summoned martial arts weapons without any of the – to me – absolutely essential flavor of the magic of Doctor Strange. No Shield of the Seraphim, no Crimson Bands of Cytorakk, no Vapors of Valtorr, none of the double-devil-horned gestures with bolts of mystic might hammering at each other. He does do some gestures, especially when opening portals to other dimensions, but none of the really cool spells I was hoping for.

As I also noted, Kaecilius didn't quite grab me as a villain the way I like. Admittedly, despite some people griping about Marvel villains, it's kinda hard to compete when Hiddleston's Loki set the bar, but I felt they missed a couple of chances to really make him shine.

Without spoiling two much, one of the two (yes TWO, so remember to STAY) credits sequences also does something with Karl Mordo that I really feel should have been done as a longer developed sequence in the (presumably) next Doctor Strange movie. The OTHER in-credits sequence is, well, beautiful and I won't say any more.

All in all, another triumph for Marvel!



  1. My speculation is they changed the Ancient One from an old Tibetan monk to a woman is that Marvel does not want to offend the Chinese government. The Chinese government doesn’t like Tibet being shown in an independent/good light. Just look how upset they get when the US government talks to the Dali Lama So this could mean the movie being banned in China or at least being discouraged by the government or getting negative press. This could cost Marvel millions of dollars.

    • That was one of the reasons that was apparently discussed, yes. Though one could have made it a monk in some other Asian locale without much trouble; after all, the LOCATION Strange went was a not-very-disguised Tibet anyway.

  2. True, but China would probably be OK with counting that as the Tibetan province of China. China does not seek to declare Tibet does not exist but that it is part of China and not an occupied nation.

Your comments or questions welcomed!