The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) just got a little Strange. On Nov. 4, the latest installment of Marvel’s Phase Three, Doctor Strange, arrived in theaters across the multiverse. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the swaggering, selfish Stephen Strange, a renowned neurosurgeon who loses everything after a distracted-driving car accident nearly takes his life. Left with incredible nerve damage in his hands, he must humble himself to get the healing he seeks, but quickly learns that the truth is much stranger than fiction.
This 14th entry to the extensive MCU manages to reflect the strengths and shortcomings of the Marvel Studios method while adding a new and necessary depth to the larger picture. The film plays it safe, sticking with Marvel’s formulaic plots involving a villain who works for a bigger villain, hoping to steal a mystical artifact which usually houses an Infinity Stone, as per the Marvel mythos. The Infinity Stones represent the gateway to controlling reality, but as Doctor Strange reveals, the reality we see is only one of many. Despite its typical but still highly enjoyable Marvel plot structure, the film truly excels in its special effects.
Until now, Thor was arguably the most magical superhero in the MCU, but even then the franchise explained its magic by way of science. Doctor Strange is the first heavy hitter who uses purely mystical powers. Beautifully colored mandalas and sparking whips are just a few of the powers that the sorcerers in the film can manifest.
The magic also extends to the scenery, with visuals that surpass the mind-bending landscapes of films like Inception. An extended fight scene in New York throws the city into a kaleidoscope effect, and some sequences of action take place in a mirror dimension where everything looks to be encased in crystal. No science explains these mystic arts, extending the lore of the Marvel world and increasing the possibilities for more magical exploits in movies to come.
With its first mystical characters, Marvel also finds a challenge in the casting department. The two most powerful sorcerers in an ancient Asian order are white — Cumberbatch as Strange and Tilda Swinton, playing the Ancient One who is Sorcerer Supreme. While it could be considered a stereotype to cast an Asian actor as a master of the mystic arts, the film relegates the actors of color to secondary roles in a cinematic universe which has had no leading Asian actors.
Swinton’s character is originally a Tibetan man in the comics, but was changed to be a Celtic woman so as not to anger the international Chinese audience, which contributes a great deal of revenue to the films. This added a new female role, but also took away the heritage of this order of sorcerers.
This sort of racial change also occurred with Ben Kingsley’s villain Mandarin in Iron Man 3, and while the upcoming Netflix hero Iron Fist is white in the comics, his character also raises the question of whether Marvel should diversify its mystic and martial arts-based characters without falling into the stereotypes of the eras when these heroes were created. They hopefully will address this issue in the near future, as the MCU is expanding in limitless ways but still lacks an Asian lead after 14 films.
If you’re looking to have your mind expanded and your reality challenged, Marvel’s Doctor Strange is an entertaining and mystifying addition to the Marvel portfolio. While it echoes with the vestiges of previous films from Marvel’s canon such as Captain America: Civil War, it stands strong on its own and is accessible to newcomers who seek the knowledge of the Ancient One. Be sure to stay until all of the credits have rolled in order to catch two exciting additional scenes, in true Marvel teaser fashion. Doctor’s orders.