It’s probably not a spoiler to tell you that Doctor Strange, Marvel’s latest entry in the uber-franchise that is the MCU, gets a little, well, strange. (Not sentient tree-beings and talking raccoons strange, but still.)
There’s a levitating cloak with a mind of its own, a magical necklace known as the Eye of Amaretto? Agamemnon? Agamotto, Tilda Swinton as an ageless mystical master, and fight scenes that take place entirely in somewhere called the “Mirror Dimension,” sparing the real world from getting turned into a giant Rubik’s Cube by warring sorcerers.
Basically, Doctor Strange is the comic book movie version of a heat check. You know, when a player starts tossing up increasingly ridiculous shots just to see if they go in. And right now, Marvel is operating in 2016 Steph Curry mode (the Regular Season edition, that is). Ever since Iron Man first launched this whole Cinematic Universe thing back in 2008, the comic book company-turned-movie studio has been on an insane, box office-busting roll. The last Marvel movie to make less than $500 million dollars? That’d the first Captain America, way back in 2011.
Which means now we’re getting yet another superhero origin story in Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a surgeon-turned-sorcerer with an anthropomorphic cape, Tony Stark’s goatee and Hugh Laurie’s American accent. And you don’t have to use the Eye of Whatever to know it’s probably going to be a huge hit as well.
It’s all part of Marvel’s “Phase Three” (which sounds more like an army offensive than a release slate strategy, but fine). Kevin Feige and co. have spent the better part of the past decade trying to make audiences care about glowing gems called the Infinity Stones and a purple interplanetary Big Bad named Thanos, and the mind-expanding Doctor Strange is the next step towards expanding the Marvel universe, packed with expository gibberish about the existence of the “multiverse” that’s presumably the key to crossing Chris Pratt’s Guardians over with Chris Evans’ Avengers and getting some Strange in our Thor.
Make no mistake: Doctor Strange is the gateway to some of Marvel’s nerdier realms, with its M.C. Escher-inspired fight scenes and metaphysical mumbo jumbo about the mystic arts and astral planes. And while the Steve Ditko-created character certainly has a loyal following, he doesn’t exactly have the same name recognition as, say, Spider-Man. Still, the movie, or at least a version of it, anyway, has been in the works for years now. It almost got made twice in the ‘80s. Then Wes Craven signed on to write/direct in the ‘90s, before a post-Blade David Goyer took over. But after seeing the final incarnation, Doctor Strange feels like a movie that could have only been made now, after Marvel’s slowly upped mainstream audiences’ nerd tolerance, inoculating us with magical hammers and megalomaniacal robots and impenetrable super-suits at a minimum of two doses a year.
Sure, there was a ton of pre-release prognostication about whether Guardians of the Galaxy was too “weird” for non-Comic-Con audiences too. Only that movie was still working within a familiar, recognizable realm for most of us: the swashbuckling sci-fi adventure. Let’s be real here, is a foul-mouthed raccoon/bounty hunter really any weirder than a giant slug/gangster, or anything else we’ve seen in the Star Wars universe?
Doctor Strange, though, is… different. There’s a trippy cosmic interlude where its titular hero tumbles through what amounts to an interdimensional acid trip. (His hands grow tinier hands, man.) Swinton’s Ancient One punches him so hard his soul leaves his frickin’ body, and then the known universe. It’s also probably the first Marvel movie to open with a decapitation. (Though for all the visual inventiveness, it’s still got a pretty stock story. An arrogant white guy is humbled, before learning to harness his previously untapped powers to save the day? Talk about “basic.” That’s the Pumpkin Spice Latte of comic book movie plots. Essentially Iron Man 2.0.) Yet, much like Guardians before it, Doctor Strange acts as a potential litmus test, to see just how deep this comic book craze goes.
Yes, Captain America: Civil War just raked in well over a billion dollars. But it was also basically Avengers 2.5, which makes it a total layup. Same goes for the rest of the sequels Marvel’s got planned from here through eternity. Doing another Spider-Man movie? Please. That’s like taking a granny shot from the free throw line. But a movie about a second-tier, New Age-y superhero featuring a bad guy who… overdid it on the eyeshadow? That’s the Hollywood equivalent of launching one from half court.
If it works, Doctor Strange gives the studio yet another shiny new franchise, another goateed hero to slot in for their upcoming superhero royal rumble Avengers: Infinity War, and a continued license to explore some of the Marvel-verse’s lesser-known corners. If it doesn’t? They’ve got Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 up next. Another layup.
But considering we could just as easily be on Iron Man 14 right now instead of this strange little digression, we say let Marvel keep taking shots. Because they still haven’t missed yet.