Just when I think I’m done with Marvel Studios films, they pull me right in again. “Doctor Strange”—helmed by criminally underrated director Scott Derrickson—is a wonderful film that demands to be seen. It is the best supernatural action thriller in nearly a decade.
“Doctor Strange” centers on the eponymous (and arrogant) neurosurgeon Stephen Strange, who suffers a terrible car accident that renders him unable to properly use his hands. Desperate for healing, Strange follows a tip to Kathmandu, Nepal, where he meets the mysterious “Ancient One’” (Tilda Swinton) and a cabal of magic-wielders who proceed to demolish Strange’s philosophical-materialist view of reality. Armed with strange new powers of energy manipulation and dimension-hopping, Strange soon finds himself locked in battle with acolytes of the demon god Dormammu, whose grand plan is far more complex than simply “eat the world.”
The universe of “Doctor Strange” resembles nothing so much as a mashup of David Mitchell’s “The Bone Clocks” and the dark fantasy novels of Inkling writer Charles Williams: good and evil magicians skulk through the shadows of human society, wielding spiritual forces that periodically manifest both inside and outside the visible world. And when these magicians clash, they do so pyrotechnically. The effects are genuinely breathtaking (especially in 3D)—endlessly visionary tableaus blending Kubrick and Aronofsky with “Inception” and “Harry Potter.”
As anyone who’s seen the trailers will know, “Doctor Strange” is steeped in imagery pulled straight from Tibetan Buddhism—robes, monasteries, prayer wheels, and more. This is pure Hollywood: philosophically speaking, the movie has nothing whatsoever to do with Eastern thought. Instead, virtually every element is pulled from Western mystical or intellectual traditions.
First, instead of coming to terms with the ultimate illusoriness of the world (maya), Strange and his peers investigate the participatory relationship between matter and spirit—a relationship that evokes a Thomistic vision of the integrated human person (for instance, the film’s “astral projections,” in which one’s soul temporarily leaves the body, make clear that body and soul are not severable in a Cartesian-dualist sense). Second, here “good” and “evil” have moral truth-values in a distinctly Western sense; there is no unifying cosmic life-force that may be directed to divergent ends, a la “Star Wars.” The ethical landscape of “Doctor Strange” is decidedly traditional. Third, the world of “Doctor Strange” appears to be governed by a “natural law” that owes more to Aristotle than to Siddhartha: in lieu of cycles of birth, suffering, and rebirth, “Doctor Strange” postulates an ordered universe structured by higher “rules.” Finally (and this is a small point) the magical iconography used by these sorcerers looks an awful lot like Western alchemical symbols, not Eastern mandalas.
There are some who may view this as a philosophical bait-and-switch, but I prefer to see this movie as a fascinating counterpoint to “The Matrix” series—whose aesthetic vision “Doctor Strange” occasionally echoes. Both entail an awakening of their protagonist to the nature of ultimate reality—an awakening that imbues them with world-shifting powers and sets them on a Joseph Campbell-style “hero’s journey.” But while “The Matrix” borrows heavily from themes found in the Eastern tradition, with Western-style messianic imagery tacked on for narrative effect, “Doctor Strange” does precisely the opposite.
The thematic intelligence of “Doctor Strange” is similarly present in the cinematic realm. “Doctor Strange,” for the most part, is tonally mature in a way many Marvel films haven’t been. Strange isn’t a billionaire playboy or an immortal “god”: he’s a neurosurgeon who learns his powers, rather than having them thrust upon him by deus ex machina conventions. Moreover, this isn’t a hero who casually levels city blocks or guns down hordes of Nazis: this is a protagonist who anguishes over taking the life of one enemy in light of his oath to “do no harm.” Doctor Strange is likely the closest Marvel will ever come to a St. Augustine—a contemplative figure broken and restored through grace, torn between pride and humility and between self and sacrifice.
“Doctor Strange” only loses its way when the Marvel Cinematic Universe intrudes upon the scene. Quippy Marvel-movie humor simply doesn’t work well against the complex theological/philosophical backdrop, nor do the (mercifully rare) attempts to tie the story into the main Avengers canon. These flaws aren’t fatal, though they do feel jarring in context.
Minor gripes aside, this is a brilliant, thoughtful movie that I dearly wish I’d made or written. Even if you’re suffering from superhero-film fatigue, “Doctor Strange” is not one to miss.
Rich, complex, and beautiful, “Doctor Strange” is probably my new favorite Marvel film.
Normalized Score: 8.7