Strange things happen in Dr. Strange (I promise that will be the only title pun I make). At its core, Dr. Strange is a typical hero’s journey of discovery; one that adheres to the well-established and successful Marvel formula. However, since this move takes us into the mystic corner of the Marvel Universe, things get pretty trippy, which makes for one of the most visually interesting and unique Marvel films thus far. Add in a surprising amount of narrative layers and subtle subtext, and you have a rich and engaging film that does what pretty much only Guardians of the Galaxy was able to achieve so far: a Marvel movie that sticks to the plan but still manages to feel very different.
Now, Benedict Cumberbatch is one of those actors who people say, “I could watch him read names out of a phonebook.” I’ve never been quite sure what’s meant by that, especially since phonebooks pretty much don’t exist today, but I assume it means the guy’s pretty good. While it’s a bit weird hearing him use an American accent, I have to say that Marvel once again nailed it when it comes to casting. Just as it’s hard to picture anyone other than Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, I think Cumberbatch fits this role so well that it’ll be hard to think of anyone else ever portraying the good Doctor. Considering this film is filled with so much existential zaniness and weirdness, he brings the exact right amount of grounding needed to help the audience buy-in to what’s happening. He also perfectly balances the tragedy of Dr. Strange’s story with humor, wit, and incredulity. Considering that this may have been one of Marvel’s toughest movies to pull off, with how weird the mystic corner of the Marvel Universe can be, they needed someone just like Cumberbatch to anchor it all; so I guess it’s good they got him.
Dr. Strange actually does quite a bit of world-building for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not only by continuing the whole infinity stone thread (which I was glad it didn’t spend too much time on), but also by introducing elements such as magic and the multi-verse. It’s a lot to take in, but it’s all introduced in a way that makes sense to the story, without feeling like obligatory add-ons needed for setting up future movies (looking at you, Age of Ultron). By adding all of these new elements, Dr. Strange turns out to be one of the few Marvel movies that is actually fairly rich in layers of subtext; some of which, quite frankly, I found to be problematic. I won’t spend a lot of time here talking about those problems, and in truth, I’m not overly familiar with Dr. Strange as a character, so there is a possibility that I’m reading into the story things that just aren’t there. Nevertheless, there seems to be some subtle statements made in this movie that should give any thinking Christian pause, but I’ll save that more in-depth discussion for another time.
For now, I want to touch on just one idea that was introduced: the fact that “the bill always comes due.” In the film, the context of this statement is that regardless of how one uses, or abuses, power, eventually there will be consequence to be paid. While one might say that the means justify the ends, especially in light of how those means might benefit the greater good, nothing can be done with impunity, and bending or even breaking the rules, regardless of whether the reasons for doing so are good and done out of noble intent, eventually there are always consequences for our actions and decisions. This is a sobering thought, especially in a culture where bucking responsibility, passing blame, and always claiming to be a victim is rampant. The bill always comes due for the choices we make, regardless of whether it’s an election season or not (oh come on, I had to toss that in there). However, the most important choice we can make is what to do with Jesus Christ. Jesus was a historical figure; he walked this earth and he made many claims. Since he did exist, the choice then becomes what do with the claims that he made. The problem is Jesus claimed to be God, thus one has to choose whether or not that claim was true, which is where this choice gets rather tricky. Either choice has some very significant ramifications; if Jesus was who he claimed to be—the Son of God come to die for our sins and provide salvation for our souls—then the choice of whether or not to believe in him becomes very significant, with some very significant consequences. However, if he wasn’t who he said he was, and instead was just a liar or a loon, then he becomes one of the most dangerous men in history, and there is little room to claim he was a good teacher and philosopher whose sayings are worth adhering to and following because the promote such noble principles. We have to choose what to do with Jesus, and whatever choice we make, eventually that bill will come due. The difference will be in one case the bill will already be paid for us, and in the other case, we’ll find that it’s a bill we can never afford.
I remain in awe of just how well Marvel does with this business of making comic book movies. They have definitely cracked the formula for success, but are also willing to mix things up and try something different from time to time. Dr. Strange is certainly one of those films where Marvel sticks with what works while also boldly exploring some new territory. The film has a cast that ably carries the admittedly weird material, hits all the usual notes of what one expects in a Marvel movie (humor, action, spectacle), and introduces some key new elements to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Visually, it’s easily the most striking Marvel film to date, and has probably one of the most innovative and interesting fight sequences since the climactic battle in Thor 2. All in all, Dr. Strange is another fun success for Marvel, but it’s also a film that left me with some lingering doubts and concerns and a general uneasy feeling about what it might be saying about my beliefs as a Christian; but that’s a discussion for another time.
Score: 5 of 7 – Dr. Strange sticks close to the Marvel formula, so there’s a lot to enjoy here. A few instances of language and a couple intense scenes are the only concerns content-wise, as is typical for the MCU. However, this dive into the magical and metaphysical realm may present some more challenges from a worldview aspect. There are lot of layers here worthy of in-depth discussion and comparison with Biblical Truth.