ROAD TO ENDGAME: DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton, and Mads Mikkelsen
Written by: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
“I’m not ready.”
“No one ever is. We don’t get to choose our time. Death is what gives life meaning. To know your days are numbered, your time is short. You’d think after all this time I’d be ready but look at me. Stretching one moment out into a thousand just so I can watch the snow.”
Long before the Mad Titan brought death and grief to the MCU, a weird little Phase 3 origin story struggles with mortality. 2016’s Doctor Strange, brought to us by the minds behind Prometheus and Sinister, is admittedly not the greatest showing for Marvel’s greatest trash wizard. In both his “team-up” appearances, Strange has shined brighter and gotten to display more of his not inconsiderable mystic arsenal. But I will be Cyttorak-dammed if I don’t love this movie. I also feel like it is an important step to make on the Road to Endgame. Death has been a part of the MCU for longer than you would think. Doctor Strange wasn’t afraid to tell a story centered around that cold, hard fact of life.
Going into Doctor Strange, the feeling, just as a fan was … anxious. Personally, Stephen Strange is one of my all-time favorite comic book characters, so the prospect of him being a part of the “New Avengers” on the come-up in Phase 3 was exciting. Less exciting was the pretty on-the-nose casting of Benedict “I Was The Star of A Show Where Once A Crime Was Committed By A F*cking Boomerang” Cumberbatch. But then I was hooked by the announcement that a bunch of horror people were going to bring my favorite to life. Afterwards, leaving the theater, I would think, “Well naturally, it had to be horror people.”
Who else but those who work in the horror genre would know how to stage Dr. Stephen Strange’s many “deaths” and rebirths? We start with the absolutely gnarly car crash that takes the hands and first “life” of Stephen. Staged with bone-crunching detail by Derrickson, who proves chillingly adroit at these kinds of grim tableaux with films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the aforementioned Sinister. Along with screenwriters Cargill and Spaihts, Derrickson brings Cumberbatch’s haughty, know-it-all take on Strange down to the lowest depths, preparing him for his “metaphysical” death as he comes under the tutelage of Tilda Swinton’s racially dubious Ancient One. Wherein he is thrown across the MCU’s map of the multiverse, which now includes the newly established Quantum Realm.
Smarter people than I have written about this casting. As well as how the origin story nature of this movie hamstrings it from getting truly crazy until the very end where Derrickson and company show what Doctor Strange stories can TRULY do. But all of that doesn’t negate the power of seeing Stephen experience a much more tangible death; that of his mortal body and that of his master the Ancient One. Only then can he realize once and for all that “it isn’t about you.” That life only has meaning if you live it, because nobody ever gets out alive.
I will admit a certain amount of, shall we say, projection in this. Right before this movie came out, I myself experienced a sudden, gut-wrenching loss. Strange’s origin movie was one of the blessed times I was able to leave the house and see something. Experiencing a hero, one of my favorites no less, navigating through a story of grieving and accepting loss as a natural part of life. Accepting it even faced with eternal life under the thumb of Dormammu truly moved me. Death is a constant, sometimes cruel variable in our reality, yes, but that doesn’t make life any less worth living or remembering. If Stephen Strange could learn that, surely I could. And that got me through the rest of that year for the most part.
My dramatics aside, I genuinely think this movie is a ton of fun, despite that being a very uncool opinion around Film Twitter. By this time, we were all pretty much over the origin stories, but I find this one being one I rewatch a lot even without a looming “major” release. We get some fun groundwork for Stephen and Wong’s relationship. One hell of a Baron Mordo in the form of Chiwetel Ejiofor who gives a commanding performance alongside Cumberbatch. Mads Mikkelsen really having a blast, bathing in the River of Ham, underneath some impressive makeup. All that baked into a film that knows just how truly weird and resonant Doctor Strange stories can be. A more than worthy stop on the Road to Endgame. Until next time, be seeing you.