As soon as Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive begins to play, you just know writer/director Scott Derrickson must be a huge Doctor Strange fanboy. After all, only a devoted fan would recall that the album cover to Pink Floyd’s A Saucerful of Secrets contains a hidden image of Doctor Strange taken from Marvel Comic’s Strange Tales #158 published in 1967. That same fan would also recollect that Pink Floyd’s song Cymbaline from the 1969 album More name drops Doctor Strange in its lyrics. So, the inclusion of a Pink Floyd aural Easter egg on the soundtrack of Doctor Strange provides all the proof necessary that Marvel Studios has placed their latest superhero blockbuster in the hands of a true fan of the character. However, what is even more interesting is how apparent it becomes over the course of the film that they have also handed the reins of Doctor Strange to one of the more vocal Christians working in Hollywood today.
For those out there who might not be as deeply rooted in comic book ephemera as Scott Derrickson (and myself, obviously), Doctor Strange is the story of one Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), perhaps the most brilliant neurosurgeon on the planet. If you’re not sure about that, just ask the good doctor and he will tell you so himself. Strange is the type of rock-star sawbones who takes cases based not on a patient’s needs, but rather by how much they will benefit his already stellar reputation. One night, however, his self-centered world comes crashing down when an auto accident leaves his hands damaged beyond repair.
Exhausting all medical possibilities for a cure, Strange travels to Kathmandu in search of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a mystical being who has seemingly performed miracles in the past. After some difficulty, Strange convinces the Sorcerer Supreme to take him under her tutelage. It’s here that Derrickson’s evangelical sensibilities begin to peek through. Though the “magic” utilized by the movie’s characters is couched in the language of pseudoscientific comic book gobbledygook, some of the lessons imparted by the Ancient One will sound all too familiar to those with spiritual leanings. For example, Strange’s lack of advancement is laid squarely at the feet of his unbelief in the spiritual, his stubborn insistence that the material is all that there is in this indifferent universe. In one of the film’s most enjoyable scenes, the Ancient One literally knocks these atheistic views right out of her novice’s thick skull.
Along with the humor, this sequence also highlights what is perhaps the movie’s most striking feature, its visuals. While the trailers have already revealed some of the film’s Inception-inspired effects, Strange’s punch-powered passage through the multiverse also allows the filmmakers to indulge in surrealistic imagery drawn directly from the graphic design and psychedelic palette of original Doctor Strange artist, Steve Ditko. So, even though the narrative sticks to the tried and true formulas of a superhero origin story (not necessarily to its detriment), the visuals are unlike anything Marvel has yet to put onscreen. They make Doctor Strange that rare thing, a movie worth seeing in 3D.
Of course, once Strange is on the correct spiritual path, it isn’t long before evil attempts to derail him in the form of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a fallen pupil of the Ancient One. Utilizing a forbidden ritual, Kaecilius intends to destroy the mystical barriers protecting the Earth and open the gateway that will allow the dread Dormammu entry into our dimension. Yes, the film’s climax is yet another total-destruction scenario, but Derrickson finds a clever and unexpected way to present it. His solution also allows him to sneak in the Christian concept that sometimes “losing” is the actual path to victory. Anyone who has ever pondered the crucifixion will understand what he is getting at when they see it.
Is Doctor Strange the best Marvel movie to date? Probably not. But it is above average and unique enough to be enjoyed even by moviegoers who might be starting to suffer from a bit of superhero fatigue. And for those who share Derrickson’s fanboy fervor (and mine, obviously), Doctor Strange is just about the best they could have hoped for.