I had a revelation reading Wild Cards, the George R.R. Martin co-edited superhero universe anthology, for the first time this past month. When new superhero stories are told with confidence, by effective and committed fans of the craft, it’s thrilling, exciting, and flat out FUN to learn where new characters come from, and to welcome them to this new universe you’re developing.
There’s a reason we fell for origin stories in the…
origin… first place. Where we come from matters, establishing both motivation and character in the canonical carbonite template for all future character appearances.
***Note: There are no spoilers in this review until my 10 final thoughts, at which point the review is all spoilers and notes as much!***
I approached the Doctor Strange origin story with a dread that would make Dormammu proud. We’re really going to waste more than an hour on a genuinely effective ‘Don’t text and drive PSA’ aren’t we? Can’t we skip to the parts where he flies to other dimensions using a cloak of levitation and says things like “By the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak!” unironically while fighting multiversal mindless ones (no, not just the political party you oppose) with a conjured battleaxe?
Admittedly, there’s still a part of me that feels this way. The opening action of Doctor Strange is exhilarating, with Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One and Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius’s unleashing the combined visual torrent of Inception, The Matrix, and Harry Potter into a fighting style we’ve never seen before in the MCU. While the film would go on to make it clear that Doctor Stephen Strange needed to be made a believer, I still bristle at MCU grand architect Kevin Feige’s assertion that audience’s need to be introduced to magic (Let me take a moment here to point out: I’ve spent a couple weeks questioning both Joe Maddon and Kevin Feige, both of whom should be beyond reproach at this point – as always, I am a bonehead). Tilda waved her hand and threw a building at a guy – cool, I got it, LET’S GO TO THE DREAD DIMENSION!!!
When I take a step back, though, I realize that such a viewpoint is from my own separate reality (#StrangePuns), and we’re actually at a rare point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that we will never get back. We’re at the point in this universe when we get to watch Marvel get built brick by brick, much like Stan, Steve, and Jack were doing with the comics in the 60’s. You only get to launch once, and if Wild Cards showed me anything – apart from Dr. Strange analogues who receive their powers from tantric pimp rituals – it’s how to find the joy in the origin.
Simply put, this is a solid, consistent Doctor Strange origin, that pays homage to the character’s comic book history and introduces the necessary elements of a Sorcerer Supreme in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If somebody asked you “What’s the deal with Doctor Strange?” you’d point them directly to this film. Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a predictably excellent Stephen Strange, taking the arrogant surgeon to the boundaries of irredeemable before steadily infusing enough sympathy and charm to walk back to heroism.
More importantly, magic looks great in the MCU, and will make a welcome addition to any story where Dr. Strange makes an appearance in the future.
Infinity Warts And All
At some point in the next 4 years, one of two things are going to happen. Either we’re going to witness the superhero movie bubble burst, to the applause of highbrow prognosticators everywhere, or the Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to actually, finally, do the unthinkable: reach stakes so high we simply can’t build anymore, and the old familiar ways are forever changed.
Think about it: By the time Avengers 4, aka “Don’t Call it Infinity War Part 2,” rolls around in 2020, we’ll be a completely unprecedented 12 Years into Robert Downey Jr.’s tenure as Iron Man. The core Avengers unit will have been together longer than the Showtime Era LA Lakers. Even if all the Hollywood players were 100% willing to continue this unheard of dedication to a franchise, from a storytelling perspective it will be unbearably stale.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t have the luxury of comic books, where we know the medium will essentially never end, and are willing to plow through a tedious-if-meaningless “MEGA-EVENT!!” like Axis in the hopes of next year finding the excellent Secret Wars. The MCU has been building to Thanos and the Infinity Gems since 2012’s Avengers – the payoff HAS to be huge. It can’t be a soft reset, or a reboot, or a faux-cataclsym ala a Marvel Comics summer comic book event.
A whimper will disappoint every single fan in the MCU.
Kevin Feige and the Marvel Studios brain trust knows this, and you can see it in a movie like Doctor Strange.
Every non-Avengers movie from Ant-Man forward is essential in carving out the look and possibilities of the MCU after Infinity War. The MCU has always taken its lessons from Marvel’s Ultimate Universe, which kept stakes high with an unwavering commitment to try out new and unexpected characters to keep the universe fresh.
This is why we need Doctor Strange origin movies now, and why we’ll need Black Panther, Spider-Man, and Captain Marvel in the coming years. A seismic shift is coming for the MCU, and I’m finding a child-like joy in exploring the new mystic portals that will be opened for the MCU of the next 12 years.
Marvel Cinematic Universe Power Rankings
Every time a new Marvel movie is released I like to update my Marvel Cinematic Univese power rankings. As we approach a nearly legitimate 20 entries, I’ve broken the power rankings into tiers. I could certainly see Dr. Strange overtaking Avengers 2 in my rankings after some time and a second viewing, although cracking the second tier and overtaking Iron Man seems less likely.
Tier 1: The Best
2) Alias aka Jessica Jones
3) Guardians of the Galaxy
4) Captain America 3: Civil War
Tier 2: Great
5) Daredevil (Seasons 1 & 2)
6) Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
7) Iron Man 3
8) Iron Man
Tier 3: Good
9) Avengers 2: Age of Ultron
10) Dr. Strange
11) Captain America: The First Avenger
Tier 4: Mixed Feelings
13) Luke Cage
14) Thor 2: The Dark World
Tier 5: Sick Day, Sure, I’ll Watch
16) Agent Carter
17) Incredible Hulk
Tier 6: Making Me Sick Day
18) Iron Man 2
19) Your boss emails you ‘We need to talk’ without context or further explanation
20) Agents of SHIELD
10 Takeaways and Final Thoughts
*** SPOILERS FOLLOW***
1. Dr. DormammWho
The sudden revelation that we were actually going to get to SEE Dormammu (and ostensibly the Dark Dimension) is the most excited I’ve been in a Marvel movie since Giant Man (ok, it happens a lot). Could I have about 34% more Ditko pumpkin-head-on-fire? Yeah, sure. At the end of the day, it’s more exciting than anything to have a cosmic Marvel villain of near infinite scope pulled off so effectively. It’s a promising sign of things to come for Ego the Living Planet and all the cosmic entities still on the bench.
More than anything, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Dr. Strange’s sacrificial time-looped battle of wits and one of the most memorable Peter Capaldi Doctor Who episodes, “Heaven Sent”. My wife mentioned the same episode coming out of the movie, and if you’ve seen it you probably see why. While “Heaven Sent,” fully played up the sacrifice and emotion of endless repetition, Doctor Strange briskly and almost comically yada-yada’d the “eternity” of deaths, diminishing the growth of Stephen Strange by comparison, but certainly making for a less grueling watch.
2. Marvel Studios Title Sequence
I actually booed the opening title sequence when the classic comic flip-book was replaced with a new Marvel Studios footage junket.
The comics have enough of an inferiority complex as it is, bring them back for their 20 seconds of barely recognizable fame.
3. Baron Mordo
I liked Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as Baron Mordo more than I could have anticipated. The Mordo of Stan and Steve is relatively heavy-handed, destined for villainy from the onset, but if you remove the baggage of comic book history, Mordo and Strange could have simply been friends.
Even following the unceremonious split and revelations that the Ancient One had violated her own codes regarding the Dark Dimension, it wasn’t clear to me why Mordo was on a path toward straight up serial magic villainy.
This made the second post-credits violation all the more shocking. I did not feel like this was an earned moment for Mordo, and while it sets up Baron Mordo as our villain for Doctor Strange 2: The Death of Magic – admittedly a villain and plot I’m INTO – I’m unclear why Marvel rushed into this so quickly. The logic simply isn’t there for Mordo to suddenly feel good about crippling a man in such brutal fashion.
4. King of Cameos / Wait, Where’s Odin?
Dr. Strange has been the king of Marvel cameos as far back as Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 (if not even earlier), so it’s refreshing to see Thor and his beer stein paying Beeker street a visit to track down Odin, especially if it means the good Doctor will play even a small role in Thor 3.
The post-credit scene does raise the question: Who forgot to check in on Odin last night?
Last we saw, Odin was on the throne of Asgard, except it wasn’t ACTUALLY Odin, it was Loki using magic – illusions – to appear to be Odin. For the record, this is the most Loki move of the entire MCU, and is 95% of the reason I include Thor 2 Tier 3 of my MCU power rankings.
Since we already know this, the bigger revelation is that THOR now knows this, and both Thor and Loki are working together to try and find Odin, which seems to indicated Loki didn’t imprison Odin. This being Loki, it’s hard to take anything at face value, but my guess is Odin went off to try and stop Ragnaraok by himself, put Loki on the throne, and now ran into some hopefully Surtur-sized trouble. It’s a classic fast-one from ol’ one-eye.
Also, check this out: The last time we saw Thor in an actual Marvel movie before Thor 3 in November 2017? May of 2015.
5) Continuity Errors and Marvel Movie Chronology
Congrats on the Marvel Cinematic Universe on achieving enough success (eight years!) that they have to furiously backtrack on seemingly obvious easter eggs that play wackamole with the continuity timeline.
The first culprit is of course the 2014 Captain America 2: Winter Soldier reference to Stephen Strange as one of Hydra’s targets (R.I.P. evil Jasper Sitwell).
If Hydra was already targeting Dr. Strange back in 2014, doesn’t this mean the good Doctor was active and operating prior to Ultron and Civil War?
This immediately buts heads with a seemingly obvious easter egg in Dr. Strange, as arrogant Steve is offered a 35 year-old patient who may never walk again, seeming to allude to Rhodey, aka War Machine.
Rather than deal with the continuity quagmire, or Marvel No-Prize their way to an explanation, Marvel producers and writers are essentially running for office and denying either of the events are what we think they are. For starters, the patient that sounds a whole lot like Rhodey is apparently not supposed to be Rhodey (riiiight), and we are also to believe Hydra is just into Dr. Steve because he’s a great doctor. Given he’s a REALLY great doctor, this actually isn’t completely unbelievable.
At the end of the day, placing the movie in real time is certainly the easiest, and also keeps me from wondering why Dr. Strange would stay completely uninvolved from extra-dimensional threats like Ultron using an infinity gem to create a Vision-son.
6) 2016’s ‘There Is No Mandarin Award’
For those of you unfamiliar, the Comic Book Herald ‘There is No Mandarin’ award goes to the Marvel villain most thoroughly wasted in service of the plot. Previous winners include Ronan the Accuser in 2014, Baron von Strucker in 2015, and of course, The (Not) Mandarin in 2013.
2016’s selection is difficult, as Baron Zemo survived his Civil War experience thanks to T’Challa, and may yet live to spark a thrilling Masters of Evil. I could have used a whole lot more Dormammu, but his battle of wits cameo was a fun surprise, and he remains free to wreak multiversal havoc in the Marvel Universe for years to come.
This essentially leaves us with Kaecilius or a villain from Luke Cage or Daredevil. Since I developed absolutely no feelings positive or negative towards Kaecilius, and since no villains were wasted in Daredevil, that leaves us with only choice:
R.I.P. Cottonmouth! 2016’s ‘There is No Mandarin Award’ winner!
7) Doctor Strange Must-Reads
I think the three scenes that excited the Doctor Strange reader in me the most were, in priority order:
1) The realization we were about to see and hear Dormammu
2) Astral Fight!
3) The words ‘Living Tribunal’ in a theater full of working class Americans in the year of our Cubs, 2016
That second scene, with Doctor Strange’s astral form providing medical illumination to Racheal McAdams was particularly reminiscint of some strinking Marcos Martin art from Doctor Strange: The Oath. Which brings us to my three favorite Doctor Strange recommended reads:
There are of course plenty more great Doctor Strange stories, and you can find them in Comic Book Herald’s Doctor Strange reading order.
I realize we’re playing the moment for as broad recognition as possible, but if we’d caught the first 1:45 of Partition in Wong’s headphones, they’d have carted me out of the theater on a stretcher.
If Thor 3 isn’t the best comic book movie of 2017, I’ll eat my Mjolnir.
10) Multiversity 101
It took 8 years, but Doctor Strange ever so slowly creaks open the doors of the Marvel multiverse. I don’t expect we’ll be tearing open any alternate realities any time soon, but with Doctor Strange doing things like “Time After Time” montages in the middle of Hong Kong, it’s only a matter of time before there’s an impact on the space time continuum and Ultron takes over Earth… Is the MCU ready for Avengers 5: Age Of Ultron 2?!
What did you think of Doctor Strange? Do what feels right to you in the comments?