Marvel gets metaphysical with 'Doctor Strange'

28 Oct 2016 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

7 mins
Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange, the 14th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), is one of the studio's most ambitious and riskiest projects to date, and expands the parameters of the franchise in a series of exciting ways. The story follows Dr. Stephen Strange - a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon set to lose everything after a crippling car crash. Searching for anything that might help him, Strange finds hope and healing in a mysterious temple in Nepal, where his life is forever changed by encountering the mystic arts.

Unlike his superhero contemporaries Iron ManCaptain America, and Hulk, Doctor Strange is not a universally-known character. Created in 1963 by Spider-Man artist Steve Dikto and writer Stan Lee, Strange has long been a popular figure in comics, but time was needed to establish audience trust around the Marvel cinematic brand before embarking on his own big screen quest. That is because Strange's story is unusual, risky, and... odd.

When writing the original comics, Lee and Dikto used the classic Disney film Fantasia as a visual reference. This wildly inventive, phantasmagorical animation links in nicely with the world(s) Strange inhabits. His story takes audiences into a mind-expanding sphere of parallel dimensions, alternate universes and non-linear time-frames. You might not be familiar with concepts such as Astral Projection, Dimensionalization and Fractured Spacetime, but they all play a crucial part in the labyrinthine narrative. 

These theories may sound intimidating, but film has a long history of using its unique editing possibilities to play with alternative perspectives of time. This can be through relatively grounded what if classics, such as Groundhog DayRun Lola Run and It's a Wonderful Life; via blockbusters like LooperEdge of Tomorrow or X-Men: Days of Future Past; or through more philosophically complex thrillers like Memento and Twelve Monkeys

The MatrixInception and the films of Hiyao Miyasaki were also inspiration points for Doctor Strange. As in those films, characters have their minds expanded into thinking about the world around them in entirely new and different ways, resulting in truly dazzling visuals in which time, reality, and the physical world are seemingly manipulated at will (not to mention some pretty nifty martial arts action!). Clearly referencing the remarkable optical illusions of artist M.C. Escher, the filmmakers might also have taken inspiration from the films of writer Charlie Kaufman, as Doctor Strange explores the ability to distort time and memory in similar ways to Kaufman's Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, playing with the audience's idea of how much on screen is reality. 

While the film takes the idea of alternate dimensions seriously, separate from scientific theory, the notion of magic also plays a huge role. The PrestigeThe Illusionist and the Harry Potter franchise are just some of the many films that have had fun exploring the idea of magic. However, like true magicians, the filmmakers were keen not to give too much away about how certain feats are achieved, and why particular events take place, preferring to simply let magic be magic. 

Achieving all of this requires many elements: an extraordinary amount of preparation behind-the-scenes; a story and group of characters that are grounded in something human and relatable; and a talented cast to convincingly sell these abstract concepts to cinemagoers. 

As in most superhero films, the look of the comics themselves was used as a springboard to embark on many months of crucial, intricate storyboarding and design work. This included creating thousands of pre-visualisation drawings to help roadmap the visuals; producing 18 different models of Strange's iconic Cloak of Levitation; a 10-month process to conceive his Sanctum Santorum (every self-respecting superhero needs a cool base); and the more subtle but still meticulous attention to detail seen in the production design. The behind-the-scenes craft was crucial in creating spaces that audiences would buy into and where actors could convincingly inhabit their roles.

But character has to come first. When watching the film, think about the different spaces Strange inhabits - the hospital operating room, his modernist New York apartment, the healing temple, the Sanctum Santorum - and how they reflect his evolving personality. In all film, characters are created visually through locations, costumes, and hair and make-up as much as they are through dialogue. Strange's origin story is extreme, taking him from arrogant surgeon to broken man to supreme sorcerer. By losing his hands in a car accident, he loses what defines him the most, and the story is as much about how a person deals with that, and how they're forced to dig deep and discover new ways of assigning meaning to their life as it is about interrogating the laws of physics. As the film progresses, we see an arrogant, reclusive man realise that there is more to the world than he believed. This not only grounds the story in something relatable, but in turn helps to guide us into the more fantastical realms the film inhabits.

The cast - led by Benedict Cumberbatch - also includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams and Mads Mikkelson, while Tilda Swinton plays Strange's mentor; an ageless, pure and androgynous being known as the Ancient One. This cast is considerably smaller than previous Marvel films, but the use of respected character actors reflects that the filmmakers not only needed them to guide the audience through some of the film's complicated layers (and sometimes preposterous dialogue), but also that the film is intended to be taken - to a degree - seriously. In sloppier hands, it all could have become extremely silly. 

With Doctor Strange, Marvel are attempting to expand the MCU into an 'MCM' (Marvel Cinematic Multiverse), broadening the scope of their films, and pushing the boundaries of what audiences expect from tent-pole movies, whilst also telling a traditional superhero origin story full of action and humour. Though not without precedent, it is a remarkably ambitious undertaking. It is up to audiences to judge whether or not they have succeeded in it.

Director Scott Derrickson talks Doctor Strange 

Watch our interview with Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson, who discussed - among other things - the need to take risks to keep the superhero genre fresh, the visual references that inspired the film's dazzling effects, and what makes Doctor Strange stand out from the crowd.

Actor Benedict Wong talks about his role in Doctor Strange

Our reporter Kelvin also sat down with British actor Benedict Wong, to discuss the importance of seeing an East Asian superhero, the freedom that Wong had to develop a character that is very different on the screen to on the page, and what the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe holds for him. 

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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