Doctor Strange shatters the god complex in one of Marvel’s best movies yet

Hands have long linked man to the divine. Their ability to create and restore, to develop civilization, have been seen as a blessed ability inherent in an instrument sent from above. During the revolutionary age in the physiological sciences at the advent of more modern surgery, the hands of surgeons became powerful symbols in everything from Rembrandt paintings to anatomy textbooks.

Light shone upon them, and onlookers gaped — there’s a reason Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” has the hands as its focal point rather than the face of God.

When neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) loses the precise use of his hands in a car accident, this relationship is broken. His ego, which is tied to his ability, is severed. The one god he believed in (himself) is powerless, and he faces physical and spiritual impotency.

Minutes earlier, he razzed colleagues about a Chuck Mangione tune before nimbly plucking a bullet from a brain. This is the same self-important careerist build up and break down Marvel gave us in its first foray into a cinematic universe, 2008’s Iron Man. Now, in Doctor Strange, we see how familiar symbols (both characters and their parts) have adapted and matured over the last eight years.

For a film that so readily traffics in Asian imagery (tea-drinking, Buddhist-inspired hand movements, Kuji no in spells) and is set in Nepal for its majority, it’s jarring that the cast features one Asian character with a speaking role and another as a body prop.

While Tilda Swinton’s performance as The Ancient One, whom master Strange eventually seeks after giving up hope in Western medicine, is undeniably fun and mixes a tired, wizened tolerance for skepticism with a dry, spritely wit, the rewriting of the Sorcerer Supreme as a Celtic woman feels counterintuitive and jarring.

At a Nepalese sorcerer training facility, where guardians protect Earth from interdimensionally mystic threats the Avengers aren’t quite equipped to see, Strange meets Wong (Benedict Wong) and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Wong is a stoic librarian who provides many of the film’s nonphysical laughs when shutting down Cumberbatch’s snide pop culture riffing. More complex Mordo is the good cop of the sorcerer team.

He plays by the rules — you get the feeling he’d read the interstellar star-eaters (in this case, Dormammu, a malevolent face riddled with mirrored vertices like a futuristic Star Fox video game villain) their rights if they had any.

For less interesting tension, we turn to the relationship/romance/professional exploitationship between Strange and his ex/colleague Christine Palmer (a brilliantly comic Rachel McAdams). Palmer and Strange dance the tired dance between the arrogant dick and the patient woman who is always there for him. Thankfully, Palmer is also written as a grounded foil for Strange’s headfirst dive into mysticism, which provides lots of great reaction shot humor, but this isn’t a great love story.

Rather, Doctor Strange is a trippy tale of finding spirituality through one’s own abilities. The visuals cartwheel through space and time, throwing you into pools of madness only to dry you off with a wind tunnel that doesn’t quite have a Euclidean geometry. The world spins, or is manipulated by evil zealot and former Ancient One pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, perfectly pitched somewhere between reasonable Hannibal and supervillain), into a game board for its mystical demigods’ pleasure.

They use the environment as a weapon, a stage or an escape route. Characters break the screen into multiple mirrored fragments or shove entire sections of the frame away along with the cars they wished to avoid during the fights, making this one of the most visually ambitious superhero movies ever made.

Realities are broken and time is rewound before a climactic conflict that is refreshingly clever and completely character-centric. The parts might seem (sometimes problematically) familiar, but there’s new magic here.

(Doctor Strange / Marvel Studios / Provided)
Doctor Strange / Marvel Studios / Provided

Print Headline: Time, warped, Doctor Strange shatters the god complex in one of Marvel’s best movies yet.

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