Road to Infinity War – Doctor Strange, or, Started From the Bottom Now We’re Magic

Oh I did it fam. In preparation for my viewing of Avengers: Infinity War on April 26th at 7PM, I went back and rewatched the previous 18 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from Iron Man to Black Panther. Every day leading up to Infinity War I’ll be posting a short piece on each film and my most recent hot takes on nearly a decade of the MCU. I’ll also be linking back to whatever old nonsense I wrote about the movies at the time, if applicable. And if that isn’t enough, check out my ranked listed of the MCU to date on my Letterboxd account here.

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Look, if you get Michael Stuhlbarg, you give Michael Stuhlbarg top-billing. How Marvel survived such a faux pas the world may never know.

It’s easy enough to write off Doctor Strange as magic Iron Man. Both films are origin stories about rich pricks with facial hair getting taken down a peg. Fair enough. But the humbling of Stephen Strange is so much more expansive than that of Tony Stark.

In Iron Man, Tony Stark has to reckon with, essentially, living his life in the wrong direction. By the end of the film he’s the same dude with the same skills, he just harnesses them for a different cause. He’s still an inventor. He’s still a smartass. He still struggles with egomania. But he does it in the right direction. Stephen Strange, on the other hand, is forced to reckon with that sinister insecurity that has perhaps nagged each of us in our worst moments, that he is living his life wrong. That what he believes is wrong. That what he thinks is wrong. That his ironclad existence has been made of straw all along.

In the world-expanding, black light bonanza, Timothy Leary roller coaster sequence the Ancient One sends Strange on upon their initial meeting, we watch a man’s sense of self and understanding of the universe get utterly obliterated. His quest from there is not a simple reorienting or rebranding, it’s one of rebuilding from the bottom up.

The new world in which Strange rebuilds himself is a fascinating one of charming allies, intriguing villains and fantastic visual effects.

We aren’t in 1993 anymore. Jurassic Park is, like, 100 years old. CGI is a fact of blockbuster life and usually the only time its noteworthy is when Andy Serkis is involved or it totally sucks. But the effects in Doctor Strange not only serve as a narrative catalyst for Strange’s humbling and new pursuits, they create mesmerizing fabrics and textures for this previously unexplored corner of the MCU that go beyond the typical blockbuster fair of beams and lasers and crumbling superstructures.

Of course, those visual effects would be little more than an expertly-crafted distraction were it not for the film’s cast. Benedict Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor in particular are two of the primary reasons I’m hoping to return to the world of Doctor Strange sooner rather than later. Tilda Swinton and Mads Mikkelsen are both on point as opposing forces of mystic power that have presumably encountered the same humbling Strange is in the midst of, but have since let their egos drip back into their beliefs and perceptions.

This is a film that tosses aside better actors than most could ever hope to get. Look, no discredit to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, but having Oscar MVP Michael Stuhlbarg traipsing around the fringes of your movie is bound to coax a few daydreams out of me about what a Stuhlbarg Sorcerer Supreme might be like. Similarly, fellow dramatic powerhouse Rachel McAdams gets the Natalie Portman treatment. That said, I devoted much of my initial post on Doctor Strange to my displeasure with McAdams’ sidelining, but in rewatching the film I understand her character, Dr. Palmer, is not entirely squandered.

The good Dr. Palmer brings to the world is practical. She is a person who helps those in need that are right in front of her face. Real people, with real injuries. Dying, hurting, bleeding patients. Not the disembodied charts and stats Stephen Strange mulls over blessing with his presence. When we meet Strange his do-gooding amounts to little more than selfishness disguised as lofty innovation. Amongst the visually spectacular, physics-bending skills Strange picks up over the course of the film, he also learns what Palmer already practices – to put more stock in how you can benefit the world around you, rather than how it might benefit you.

Coming off of the unresolved philosophical divide of Civil War, Doctor Strange introduces an important, timely notion to the MCU, the idea that widening one’s perception and opening up to ideas that contradict or even dismantle your own can be an invaluable strength, rather than a haughty catalyst for conflict.

For some characteristic anti-establishment film criticism and general bemoaning of Rachel McAdams limited roll in the MCU (though, I mean, third-billing? That’s some agent):

November 8, 2016: Doctor Strange, or, Breaking Most of the Rules

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