Just like you wouldn’t go looking for love at a sex party, it would be foolish to try to find anything resembling life-fortifying, soul-nourishing substance in a superhero movie. If you happen upon it, that’s great and I’m as excited for your future as you are, but I’d theoretically challenge casual viewers to explain what they gleaned from even the most prestigious of superhero franchises, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Did Batman Begins preach that what makes a man is who he is or what he does, and how did The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises complicate or reinforce this idea? But this isn’t a test, and I’m not a monster.
And so it is gratifying that the latest blip in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange, prioritizes style over substance to the extent that it does. Ideas about the nature of time, the coexistence of good and evil (sometimes within single entities), and the follies of egocentrism are peppered throughout this narratively conventional origin story—we aren’t talking about 130 minutes of pure abstract imagery. And yet, Doctor Strange’s visual ingenuity drowns out all of its other elements—the plot, the acting, the philosophy—which are generally fine, but would be most likely forgotten as soon as they’re done propping up the next Marvel movie. The images of Doctor Strange, on the other hand, could burn themselves in the brains of its audience indefinitely.
There are crystalline walls that lead to a Mirror Dimenson. Floating rings of sparks wielded by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her disciples. A church whose contents—the pews, the stained glass, the altar—upend, curve, and start to spin like parts of a clock. Cityscapes bent into 3D Escher-esque visions that make the renderings of Inception look like children’s doodles. There are kaleidoscopic filters and rainbow tubes. There’s a vision of outer space—the Multiverse—full of floating giant tentacled orbs that look like microscopic photos of disease. (Here’s gonorrhea as an example.) There’s a hand that, upon closer inspection, has hands growing out of its fingertips, and then hands growing off those hands, and then more hands… There’s Tilda Swinton’s bald head. And Benedict Cumberbatch’s uniquely spaced face, which looks somewhat amphibian and like he always just woke up. I recommend getting high and seeing this, but even if you don’t, Doctor Strange has got you. It hallucinates for you.
After setting up Dr. Strange’s surgical virtuosity and destroying it (he gets into a car accident that creates tremors in his hand) thus giving him a reason to seek alternative treatment near Tibet (which leads to his superhero training), Doctor Strange settles into the standard good guy/bad guy battling that remains fairly low-stakes while repeatedly disrupting the space-time continuum. But wow, those visuals.
Performances are strong, with Cumberbatch at peak charm—he seems to channel Harrison Ford as Han Solo here and Doctor Strange is genuinely funny (more along the lines of Guardians of the Galaxy than the dad-jokey Avengers-centered movies in this franchise). Tilda Swinton embodies her character to such a degree that you wonder if her process involved getting ancient DNA implanted in her.
Of course, her casting is weird and controversial—the Ancient One is, in the comics, an Asian man. “I wasn’t asked to play an Asian character,” was her response to the hubbub over her casting earlier this year though that’s not exactly a direct response to the representation issue. A more plainspoken reason for the character ethnicity shift came via co-screenwriter C. Robert Cargill, who called the original character a “racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in [a] very weird political place.” Cargill further said that making the character Tibetan would have risked alienating the enormous Chinese movie-going audience, on which blockbusters depend. He then clarified that these ideas were his, not his company’s. Marvel Studios released an official statement, saying, “The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic.” That’s all a big mess, but ghee whiz, those visuals sure aren’t.
Beyond that, there’s the shallow sort of diversity that’s generally perpetuated by Hollywood films half-conscious enough to make any show of it at all. Yeah, there are actual Asians in this movie (Benedict Wong is... Wong). Rachel McAdams (as Christine Palmer) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Mordo) get some screen time, but only as Doctor Strange’s alternating right hands. A white man is at the center of this of course and as usual, and he gets to do the lion’s share of cool stuff and suck up all the compassion and sympathy. We all know the spectrum is much broader than what the plot suggests, but if you need more proof look no further than the visuals. They’re very colorful and really, really cool.