I dare you to find a review of Doctor Strange that does not contain a variant of the word “kaleidoscope”. The special effects are indeed special.
As for the rest, you’ve got a gifted, wealthy, arrogant neurosurgeon, recently come down in the world; he gets his comeuppance from an ancient mystic who he hoped could give him back the use of his hands but who instead involves him in the struggle to protect Earth from some kind of evil purple chaos. Will he learn to suppress his ego, to conquer by submitting, or will he be seduced by raw power and the promise of immortality?
I loved the laugh-out-loud magic-meets-mundane humor as well as the special effects, but if you’re not a fan of fantasy, this Marvel Studios production will probably stretch your patience too far. There’s a bit of that same “the real world isn’t real” stuff that’s in the Matrix, which is fine as long as you don’t apply such fictional logic to the real real world. It’s not very tempting to do so, though, since the movie itself barely even takes the magic seriously.
What it does take seriously is the message. The movie wants us to remember that mental, physical, and mystical talents are all ultimately meaningless—or catastrophically destructive—if not wielded humbly.
Keep reading for a detailed plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
Minor gripe about Doctor Strange
IMO, they excessively downplayed the danger of standing on Everest in nothing but a Tibetan Karate outfit. I saw the 1998 IMAX film, and I read the two 1997 books, The Climb and Into Thin Air. Everest is not just cold, it’s unbelievably inhospitable to human biology. I understand how the scene on Everest fit into the plot of Doctor Strange, though, and I can overlook a bit of bad science.
It’s not ‘Mister Strange’, it’s ‘Doctor Strange’
It annoys me somewhat that intelligence and arrogance seem to be conflated. Doctor Strange isn’t just gifted, smart, and rich; he’s also insufferable. Is the movie implying that gifted, smart, rich people are all cursed with abrasive, entitled attitudes? Well, if it is, at least it shows that the disease has a cure. Doctor Strange is the foil of the similarly gifted and arrogant villain, Kaecilius, but unlike the villain, is ultimately redeemed. He’s redeemed because, regardless of the fact that his hands don’t work very well anymore, he sees himself first and fundamentally as a doctor, committed by oath to doing no harm. He doesn’t really want to enact universal immortality; he wants to go on preserving time-bound human lives. He may not act like he cares about people, but he does.
My beat sheet for Doctor Strange
Some bad guys kill a librarian and steal some pages from a magic book.
Expert neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange saves the life of a patient. Single-handedly. As it were.
Set-up / Theme Stated
Doctor Strange is not interested in saving lives, but in doing high-profile cutting-edge medical research. He can’t care about even one other human being, not even his former girlfriend, Christine, who apparently still loves him. His life is all about him.
On his way to an important speaking engagement, wearing fancy clothes and driving a fancy car, he gets distracted looking at case details and drives off a cliff. When he regains consciousness, he learns that his hands are damaged beyond repair. He spends all his money on treatments and therapy, to no avail. Following a lead from a physical therapist, he speaks with a man who seems to have recovered from severe paralysis. With the last of his money, he travels to Kathmandu to seek that man’s teacher. The inscribed watch Christine gave him, the last and most precious of a large collection of watches, is nearly stolen from him by street thugs, but a mysterious stranger defeats them and returns the watch, broken. (Gee, do you think maybe the watch is an important symbol?)
The stranger brings Doctor Strange to Kamar-Taj to meet a woman known as the Ancient One, but Doctor Strange cannot suppress the skepticism born of his scientific habits of mind. He does not believe that studying matters of the spirit can heal his body. He speaks disrespectfully in spite of repeated warnings. To teach him a lesson, the Ancient One sends his spirit on a journey he at first believes has something to do with drugs in his tea. However, he becomes convinced that she has powers and decides he wants to gain such powers, too.
Break Into Two
Doctor Strange asks to be taught. The decision is not his to make, however. The Ancient One rejects him as a student. Mordo, who invited Doctor Strange in to meet her, suggests she reconsider, because of his great potential as an ally in the struggle he knows is approaching. Finally, after Doctor Strange has stubbornly remained outside, banging on the door for hours, he is admitted to Kamar-Taj (and given the wi-fi password).
B Story / Promise of the Premise
Magic training! Doctor Strange starts out as a failure; the Ancient One traps him on Everest so that he has no choice but to rescue himself with magic; Mordo fights him with two relics that he says he somehow earned by proving himself; Doctor Strange taunts the humorless large Asian librarian, Wong, with the similarly one-word names of modern celebrities; he learns how to snatch books from the library and read them to himself while his body is sleeping. He’s overly ambitious, though, and takes the Ancient One’s technically-not-forbidden special book, plus this green eye artifact (The Eye of Agamotto), and practices reversing time by focusing on an apple he was eating. After he is caught and chided for his foolish and dangerous experiment, he learns the purpose of the magical training society. Sanctums in New York, London, and Hong Kong—locations chosen based on box office projections rather than geography or history—protect Earth from something evil called Dormammu that lurks in the dark dimension.
Doctor Strange doesn’t want to serve as some kind of Earth guardian, though; he still just wants his hands back. For his own use. As soon as the words leave his mouth, the bad guys attack his citadel and he finds himself accidentally shunted to the sanctum in New York. More by luck than skill, he survives a fight with the bad guys, who have the dark dimension power of turning real stuff into insane 3D kaleidoscopes. While a relic cape (The Cloak of Levitation) hilariously holds one of the bad guys off all by itself, Doctor Strange teleports to the hospital where Christine, baffled by his clothes and his magic stab wound, manages to patch him up with the help of his spirit self. After returning—via the wormhole in the mop closet—he and the cape trap the main bad guy, Kaecilius, in another relic that resembles a set of full-body handcuffs (like that thing they used to lock up Tai Lung the Snow Leopard in the first Kung Fu Panda). Immobilized, Kaecilius tells Doctor Strange that the Ancient One’s longevity is due to the same dark dimension forces she claims to fight. He highlights the benefits of cooperation with the entity Dormammu. (Come to the dark side. We have eternal life. And purple eyeshadow.)
Bad Guys Close In
When the Ancient One finds Doctor Strange, he accuses her of using the supposedly forbidden dark dimension forces. But they all still have to work together to stop Kaecilius from helping Dormammu take over the Earth. At the next attack, Doctor Strange traps their enemies in the mirror dimension, where they cannot harm the real world. But he and Mordo are then more or less trapped there too, where the enemies’ powers are strongest.
All is Lost
The Ancient One enters the fight, literally leveling the playing field, explicitly drawing on dark dimension forces to do so, thus losing the respect of Mordo. She then takes a bad fall back into reality, where Doctor Strange takes her to Christine’s hospital.
Dark Night of the Soul
I know I literally just used the word ‘literally’, but I really want to point out that this movie literally has a dark night of the soul…. The spirit of the teacher leaves her body, which has sustained too much damage to be repaired. She slows down time and chats with Doctor Strange about the meaning of life while watching lightning, a helicopter, and snow in slow-motion in the night sky. She justifies her choices, saying, in effect, that life is not just precious but also complicated. She tells him that if he wants, he can use his power to fix his hands and return to his old life, but that it would be a waste of his potential for him to do so.
Break Into Three
Doctor Strange goes to recruit the disillusioned Mordo to try to save the Hong Kong sanctum. They find that Wong has not been able to defend it. It has already fallen. It’s too late. They haven’t arrived in time. That’s okay, though. Doctor Strange can rewind time like he did with the apple. (It’s a toss-up, which is trippier: the kaleidoscope stuff or the backwards stuff. Aesthetically, I prefer the kaleidoscope stuff.) Rewinding time only gets you so far, though… Kaecilius escapes the time-reversal and shatters the spell that was righting everything. Now everything is just straight-up frozen. However, Doctor Strange, like Neo, will not bow to supposed inevitability.
Doctor Strange flies up into the purple chaos to confront Dormammu. He has created a time loop, and carries on an eternal negotiation that traps Dormammu even on the cusp of victory, though in each and every loop he, Doctor Strange, is violently killed. Finally, Dormammu agrees to leave Earth the heck alone, and take his minions away with him somewhere else. The evil purple chaos disappears, and Doctor Strange finishes rebuilding Hong Kong backwards. Wong finally laughs when he sees the bad guys turn to black wraiths and disappear into the receding evil purple chaos.
Doctor Strange is in charge of the New York sanctum. Wearing his cape, he looks out the swirly round window exuding capability wielded on behalf of others instead of just himself. His hands are still shaky.