You know what they say: When life gives you lemons, conjure an interdimensional portal and chuck those lemons right through it.
Well, all right, maybe that’s not a common saying; not this side of Kathmandu, anyway. And it took Dr. Stephen Strange—a recognized master at interdimensional portal creation—some time to embrace its essence.
Before he started wearing a semi-autonomous cape, Dr. Strange wore surgical scrubs. He was a medical doctor, and a dandy one at that. Blessed with a photographic memory and gifted with a set of preternaturally steady hands, Strange could fix all manner of brain and spine ailments better than anyone else in the world. People marveled at his skill even as they tired of his preening arrogance. And few could argue with his spotless success rate—even as he refused to take cases that might blemish it.
But you know what they say: Pride comes before a horrific car crash in your Lamborghini. And so it is with Strange. On a dark, rainy night, on his way to accept more applause at a black-tie gala, his sports car flies off the road, flips through the air and crashes. When he comes to, Strange finds his stitched, swollen hands are held together by wire and pins. Eleven steel rods have been inserted under the skin in an effort to stabilize their structure.
Yes, he kept his hands. But he lost their magic. They’ll never work their medical wizardry again.
That’s unacceptable to Strange. He tries every option available through Western medicine. And when that doesn’t work, he turns his eyes toward the rising sun. He learns of a man who suffered a severed spinal cord injury and somehow learned to walk again. That man suggests that Strange should travel to Nepal and seek Kamar-Taj: The folks there are pretty good with lost causes.
Desperate, Strange heads to Nepal, discovers Kamar-Taj and meets the Ancient One—a bald-headed woman who looks surprisingly spry, given her name and all. She admits to helping the man. “He couldn’t walk,” she says. “I convinced him he could.” She shows him diagrams showing chakras—supposed energy points in the human body connected with yoga, meditation and Eastern mysticism. Have you seen anything like this? the Ancient One asks.
“In gift shops,” Strange sniffs. Inside, he’s as crushed as his damaged hands. He was looking for a miracle cure. Instead, he finds a rinky-dink New Age commune peddling feeble-minded hokum.
Suddenly, the Ancient One knocks Strange out of his body and sends him hurtling through unimagined realms, galaxies and dimensions. He flies through the universe and finds another and another. He spins through time and matter—soaked in color, drenched in image, places pregnant with beauty and horror.
And then, just as suddenly, he’s back, with the Ancient One gently looking at him.
“Have you seen that before in a gift shop?” she asks.
Well, you know what they say: You can’t judge a book by its cover.
(Well, except for those books locked in chains in the Kamar-Taj library with strange, glowing symbols on their jackets that we’ve not yet gotten to in this review. Yeah, those books you can judge.)
Dr. Strange may be a great surgeon when the movie begins, but he’s also a big, smirking jerk. He’s reckless, selfish and often tries to embarrass less-talented doctors when he can.
When Strange invites ex-girlfriend Christine to a speaking engagement, he suggests such outings were always fun for the both of them. “They weren’t about us,” Christine says with a smile. “They were about you. Everything’s about you.”
But once he starts hanging out with the Ancient One, Strange begins to see the world in a different way—and not just because it’s constantly twisting into a Picasso painting.
The Ancient One heads a powerful, secret organization tasked with protecting the world from magical, mystical attacks. She tells Strange that while the Avengers safeguard the planet from physical danger, the group she’s a part of is all about spiritual threats. To be a part of the organization requires courage and a willingness to sacrifice your all for others. And she encourages Strange to become one of them.
“It’s not about you,” she says flatly. And eventually, Strange sees that she’s right.
The Ancient One drops wisdom elsewhere, too. Mordo, another of the Ancient One’s star pupils, says that he’s managed to conquer his demons during his stay in Kamar-Taj. The Ancient One corrects him: “We never lose our demons,” she says. “We only learn to live above them.”
When the Ancient One tells Strange that the secret to healing his hands is getting in touch with his spiritual side, Strange pushes back hard. “There is no such thing as spirit!” he bellows. “We are matter and nothing more!” He soon sees otherwise.
Doctor Strange is a deeply spiritual movie, predicated on there being a reality unseen and untouched by science. But everything here is also blanketed by vague Eastern mysticism, magic and the occult.
There’s an effort to make the magic here sound vaguely naturalistic. The Ancient One says that she and her acolytes pull energy from the “multiverse” (an infinite number of universes) to do their thing—comparing it to, say, a mystical, computer-like operating system that works on nature, not silicon circuits. No one prays to any foreign gods here or conjures any actual demons (unlike what apparently sometimes happened in Marvel’s Doctor Strange comic books).
But these energy manipulations are still called “spells,” and their practitioners are called sorcerers. Indeed, the Ancient One is known as the Supreme Sorcerer, a title that’s been passed down for generations. Arcane ceremonies are written in ancient tomes and loaded with mysterious symbols—all trappings of what we cinematically understand as sorcery. And when Kaecilius, the movie’s villain, and his “zealots” try to open a portal (in a Christian church) between our universe and the hellish Dark Dimension ruled by a being known as Dormammu, the ceremony is filled with magical chants as if calling forth a dark, demonic entity.
The library of Kamar-Taj is filled with works of grim arcana: One book Strange studies is the Key of Solomon, a grimoire used centuries ago to allegedly cast spells and call forth dark powers. (Many of the glowing energy signs conjured by the Ancient One and others resemble pentacles published in such books.) Staves, capes and other objects can, we’re told, be imbued with their own magic. Strange and others can also exit their physical bodies and wander around the astral plane.
Kamar-Taj feels a bit like I’d imagine a Buddhist monastery would, full of robes and Nepalese trappings. Some of its teachings have a tang of Taoism—such as when the Ancient One tells Strange that when in a river one should not fight the current but submit to it instead, figuring out ways to channel its natural power.
Before reaching Kamar-Taj, Strange wanders around Kathmandu, running his hands over Buddhist prayer wheels and seeing signs for “Holy Tours.” We see diagrams depicting chakras. Christine refers to Kamar-Taj as a “cult.” When Strange tells her it’s not, she tells him that that’s just what a cultist would say.
Strange asks Christine if she and another doctor are “sleeping together.” (They’re not.) The two talk about their own former relationship occasionally, with Strange insisting they were “barely lovers.” He later kisses her cheek.
A man is suspended by ropes of energy, groaning in pain. Kaecilius lops off his head. (Audiences see the act only as an indistinct shadow.) People die after falling from great heights. (We see their bodies lying lifeless on the pavement below). People are stabbed with semi-transparent blades of energy and presumably crushed by unfolding, moving buildings. Part of Hong Kong is destroyed: Many are presumably killed, buried in rubble or victims of some of the car crashes we see.
Hands and feet fly during frequent fights. Strange and Mordo spar, catching each other in various holds. Strange is attacked by would-be muggers who punch and kick him until Mordo arrives and fights them off. Strange and a zealot fight in their astral forms, Strange nearly dying in the process. When Christine uses electrical paddles to zap Strange’s physical body back to life, the charge hurts his astral opponent. Strange asks Christine to give him another zap: The subsequent electricity kills his astral foe. (It’s the only person that Strange kills in the movie, and it impacts him deeply. He expresses a disgust for killing, even as Mordo insists that it’s the only way to deal with these evildoers.)
Strange’s car crash is jarring and violent, and we see his hands impact the dashboard. We later see him rushed to surgery, his face bloodied and one eye swollen shut. When he awakens after the operation, he doesn’t look much better … and his stitched hands look horribly swollen and mangled. Operations feature bloody gauze and painstakingly stitched stitches.
[Spoiler Warning] Strange is killed several times in a potentially never-ending time loop (a clever way to keep Dormammu from destroying the Earth). He’s blasted, vaporized and impaled several times on screen, each time returning to demand a bargain from Dormammu. “You can’t win,” Dormammu tells him. “No,” Strange admits. “But I can lose. Again. And again. And again.”
Three s-words, a couple of uses each of “a–hole” and “h—.
After the Ancient One sends Strange on his introductory journey to spiritual parts unknown—the scene mentioned in the introduction—Strange immediately asks whether there was something in his tea. We see a character quickly drain a large mug of beer.
Strange frequently stretches or breaks the rules he’s supposed to be submitting to, from stealing books from the Kamar-Taj library to bending the laws of time and nature. He manipulates time to save innocent civilians and to prevent a massive cataclysm, but a cohort tells Strange that breaking those laws will have consequences. “The bill comes due,” he says. “Always.”
Doctor Strange features something called the “mirror dimension.” In this dimension (which you’re familiar with if you’ve seen the trailer), sorcerers can bend reality with impunity: Buildings fold in on each other and the world becomes a gigantic M.C. Escher picture.
And in a way, the movie itself exists in a fold-’em-up mirror dimension of its own.
Look at, say, the first fold, and Doctor Strange feels a lot like most other movies that take place in the Marvel cinematic universe. In terms of its problematic content, it might even be a tad better than most. It doesn’t feature the sometimes grim violence of a Captain America movie or the frenetic destruction of an Avengers flick. (Indeed, it’s interesting that it’s most spectacular action sequence features buildings being pushed back together, not being pulled asunder.) There’s very little sexuality to speak of. Language is relatively restrained.
But fold it in on itself again, and you see that Doctor Strange is not like anything else in Marvel’s stable up to this point, what with its overt mysticism and surrealism. I’ve mentioned Picasso and Escher already in this movie, so let me throw out one more artist for you: This feels like a Marvel movie tossed in a painting by Salvador Dali, melting watches and all.
Let that fold again, and we see that there’s a lot to be cautious of. Sure, the content is minimal, but Doctor Strange’s occultish trappings—absolutely inescapable elements of the Marvel character—are everywhere. And unlike a lot of other fantasy stories where magic plays a key role (like, say, Lord of the Rings or even Harry Potter) , Doctor Strange’s magic points real-world viewers in some potentially dangerous directions, spiritually speaking.
But then the story folds once more, and we see that underneath these ever-present occult elements, there are some curiously Christian themes in play, too. Consider that our good doctor doesn’t start off being so good in the beginning: He’s a selfish sinner—an atheist who believes that this material world offers the only meaning and happiness possible. Then he gets a glimpse of possibilities beyond scientific comprehension, beauties and mysteries that he can only unlock through submission to something greater than himself. He’s asked to die to the person he was and become something better. He’s asked to sacrifice his own whims and wishes for something higher. Thus, in Doctor Strange, we hear the echo of many a Christian testimony, and we see a hint of Jesus’ own sacrifice for us.
Aesthetically, Doctor Strange is a good movie, one of the strongest in the Marvel canon thus far. But is it a good movie? A movie suitable for you or your family? That depends on where you see the fold.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.